Politics

Yemen closes Saudi crossing, as truce begins

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden and AFP

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Police and civilian cars drive through al-Wadia border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in this file photo from September 29th, 2003. The crossing, which links Yemen's Hadramaut province with the kingdom, has been closed until further notice. [Khaled Fazaa/AFP]

A truce declared by the Arab coalition went into effect in Yemen on Thursday (April 9th), as Yemen announced it was closing its only land crossing with Saudi Arabia to confront the global novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In mid-March, Yemen's government ordered a partial closure of all land, sea and air crossings for travelers, but continued to open them for commercial shipments, relief and humanitarian assistance, subject to inspection measures.

On March 30th, the closure was extended for two weeks until mid-April.

Yemen's deputy prime minister and acting transport minister Salem al-Khanbashi has now ordered the full closure of Wadia crossing, until further notice, in a message sent to the crossing administration.

The closure came just two days after work was suspended at Shahn border crossing with Oman until further notice, pending the preparation of a quarantine centre and specialised medical teams to confront the coronavirus.

Wadia border crossing director Mutliq al-Sairi issued a circular to the civilian and military administrations to close the crossing until further notice.

"Yemen has no confirmed coronavirus infections," deputy health minister Ali al-Walidi told Al-Mashareq, but has been preparing for an outbreak in co-operation with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"The Health Ministry is exerting huge efforts in preparing for the coronavirus pandemic, by opening testing and quarantine centres, providing supplies and test kits and training epidemiological teams," he said.

"Local provincial authorities are exerting efforts as part of awareness-raising activities and are implementing a number of precautionary measures, including spraying and disinfecting markets and public areas," he added.

Arab coalition declares truce

The Arab coalition began a unilateral ceasefire in Yemen Thursday, saying it hoped the initiative to prevent coronavirus in the impoverished country would lead to a wider political solution.

The Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) have not made any comment on the coalition's declaration of a two-week pause in the five-year conflict that took effect from 9 a.m. GMT.

The unilateral ceasefire follows an escalation in fighting between the warring parties despite a call by the UN for an immediate cessation to protect civilians from the pandemic.

"The coalition is determined... to support efforts towards combatting the spread of COVID-19 pandemic," Arab coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said Wednesday, in announcing the ceasefire.

The two-week truce, which could be extended, was aimed at creating "appropriate conditions" for a UN-sponsored meeting between the warring parties to enable a "permanent ceasefire" in Yemen, al-Maliki added.

The Arab coalition said it was fully committed to a two-week ceasefire. But when asked whether it will respond if the Houthis persist with attacks during the truce, a Saudi official said it reserved the right to "defend our people".

UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths welcomed the truce, calling on the warring parties to "cease immediately all hostilities with the utmost urgency".

Houthis must 'show good will'

Saudi deputy defence minister Prince Khalid bin Salman called on the Houthis to "show good will" by seriously engaging in dialogue.

"The two-week ceasefire will hopefully create a more effective climate to de-escalate tensions, work with (Griffiths) towards a sustainable political settlement," Prince Khalid said in a social media post.

The UAE, a key ally in the coalition, applauded the Saudi move as "wise and responsible".

"Hope the Houthis rise to the occasion. The COVID-19 crisis eclipses everything -- the international community must step up efforts & work together to protect the Yemeni people," UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted.

"It is an important decision that must be built on, on both humanitarian and political levels," he added.

The UN has repeatedly called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Yemen to help avert potentially disastrous consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.

Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government and the Houthis had all welcomed an appeal from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for an "immediate global ceasefire" to help avert disaster for vulnerable people in conflict zones.

"It is most important to watch if the Houthis will stop their military operations," said Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

"That will be the real litmus test of a successful ceasefire as the Houthis have currently opened multiple battlefronts they cannot afford to close."

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