Yemen rebels accept ceasefire offer

14 February 2010

Government cautiously optimistic

The government of Yemen has negotiated a ceasefire agreement with rebel Houthi tribesmen in the northern province of Sadaa, a senior member of the country’s ruling party tells MEED.

An agreement was brokered on 10 February, with Houthi leaders including Abdulmalik al-Houthi pledging to stick to six conditions set by the government of the country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, the Houthi group agreed to abandon all government buildings and facilities they have captured, including military posts; return all weapons and equipment they had taken from the government and military; dismantle roadblocks; return Yemeni and Saudi Arabian prisoners; submit to Yemen’s laws and constitution; and not to attack Saudi territory.

A committee set up to oversee the ceasefire agreement has already started moving in to Sadaa, says Sheikh Mohamed Abulahoum, a leading member of the ruling General People’s Congress party. The government is encouraged by the ceasefire, but remains cautious, he adds.

“Things are moving in the right direction, but who knows what will happen next,” Abulahoum says. “The important thing now is stopping the bloodshed.”

Several ceasefire agreements have been brokered between the government and the Houthis since war first broke out in Sadaa in 2004. In August 2009, the government launched a new offensive against the group named ‘Scorched Earth’.

Houthi leaders have repeatedly said that their uprising is a reaction to the economic and political disenfranchisement by the predominantly Sunni central government. The Houthis are Zaydis, a branch of Shia Islam peculiar to Yemen and parts of Saudi Arabia. Saleh’s government says that the Houthis want to install a Shia imamate in Sanaa.

To date, the conflict has displaced more than 250,000 people, according to the Geneva-based UN High Commission for Refugees. Given that the war has cost the government up to $10m a day, it has placed a huge strain on cash-strapped Sanaa.

The government also needs to deal with a faltering economy, a southern secessionist movement, and the growth of the extremist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemen has become the focus of rising international interest in recent months, at first because of Saudi military involvement in the Houthi conflict late in 2009. Then in December, the alleged perpetrator of a bombing attempt on a US airline was reported to have been trained by Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

The ceasefire is a positive note, but is not an end to the country’s problems, Abulahoum says.

“The ceasefire is just 20 per cent of solving the problems,” he says. “Everything is connected; the problems in the north and the south, the economy. This is not so much a victory as an opportunity. We need help from the international community but now we must also help ourselves.”

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