By Aziz El Yaakoubi
RIYADH (Reuters) -United Nations and United States envoys on Wednesday welcomed unilateral truce moves by Yemen’s warring sides as encouraging steps, while stressing the need for a more comprehensive ceasefire that would help alleviate a dire humanitarian crisis.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Houthis had said it would temporarily halt military operations from Wednesday after the Iran-aligned group this week declared a three-day cessation of cross-border attacks and ground offensives in Yemen.
As part of efforts to end the seven-year-old war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed millions into hunger, the initiatives followed a U.N. call for a truce during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that starts this week.
U.N. special envoy Hans Grundberg and U.S. special envoy Tim Lenderking, speaking at a gathering of allied Yemeni factions in Riyadh on Wednesday, said the unilateral announcements were a step in the right direction.
The two envoys have been pressing Riyadh to ease coalition sea and air restrictions on areas held by the Houthis, who ousted the Saudi-backed government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene months later.
They have also urged the Houthis to end an offensive in energy-producing Marib, the internationally recognised government’s last stronghold in North Yemen.
“Yemen needs a truce. I am engaging with the parties with a sense of urgency to reach this truce by the beginning of Ramadan. The truce will ease the fuel crisis and facilitate the freedom of movement,” Grundberg told the gathering.
Lenderking said the U.N. proposal could serve as a first step towards a comprehensive ceasefire and a “new, more inclusive political process”.
Two sources familiar with the matter had said the proposal was for a temporary truce in exchange for allowing fuel ships to dock at Houthi-held Hodeidah port and a small number of commercial flights to operate from Sanaa airport.
A senior U.S. State Department official said there were “real opportunities” for progress because there was “buy in” within Yemen and from countries in the region.
“We’ve seen positive statements from the Houthis that they would be willing to engage,” the official said.
A permanent ceasefire has proved elusive as both sides resisted compromise. The Houthis want the coalition to lift its blockade ahead of any truce talks while the alliance, which controls Yemen’s seas and air space, wants a simultaneous deal.
Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam told Reuters the group has for over a month been discussing a “humanitarian truce” with Grundberg and hoped “those efforts will succeed”.
“On Riyadh’s dialogue, we are not concerned about it nor its outcomes,” he said, referring to the week-long Yemeni talks that the Houthis shunned for not being held in a “neutral” country.
Riyadh has struggled to exit the conflict that is largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system and foreign aggression.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Catherine Evans, Barbara Lewis, William Maclean and Richard Chang)