While warning Yemenis to flee, Saudi Arabia proposes a ceasefire

Yemen explainer jethro-05
Yemen explainer jethro-05

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Story highlights

  • Saudi minister says 5-day ceasefire will happen only if Houthis, their allies abide by it
  • Houthi TV reports airstrikes in Saada province after Saudi warning expires
  • An aid official describes a desperate situation in that province, elsewhere in Yemen

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN)Saudi Arabia has two messages for the people of Yemen, it appears: Flee now, and get ready for a temporary ceasefire later.

The first came in the form of leaflets that Saudi forces began dropping Thursday for residents of Yemen's Saada province, telling them to leave before evening -- a possible precursor to intensified military activity in the already flashpoint region.
    According to locals and two Houthi officials, the leaflets warn that the Saudis will consider Saada an enemy military zone beginning at 7 p.m. (noon ET) Friday.
    Thousands of families evacuated Saada province -- which is in northern Yemen, close to the Saudi border -- throughout Friday.
    And the deadline didn't stop the Saudi-led coalition that's been launching airstrikes against the Houthis, the Shiite minority rebel group that ousted Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi earlier this year that has taken over the capital Sanaa and many other parts of the Arab nation.
    According to Houthi officials and witnesses, dozens of airstrikes Friday morning hit several Houthi strongholds including Razeh and Marran. The latter locale, Marran, is the home of the late Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement.
    More bombardments came after the deadline passed, with Houthi-run Al Masirah TV reporting at least nine strikes in Saada province's Razeh district.
    Saudi military spokesman Gen. Ahmed Hassan al-Asiri said his country's forces dropped the leaflets in Saada and Marran amid concerns that "militias were trying to exploit" efforts to produce even a short-term truce by conducting attacks near and within Saudi Arabia.
    With the 7 p.m. marker come and gone, al-Asiri said on Saudi TV, "Saudi forces will start the implementation of the appropriate response to these militias and their leaders who masterminded the offensive on the Saudis. The operation will continue until it reaches its final goals."

    Saudi minister: Five-day ceasefire could start Tuesday

    The Saudis' second message also came Friday, when their top diplomat promised peace -- at least temporarily.
    Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that his country will implement a five-day ceasefire for Yemen beginning at 11 p.m. next Tuesday. His announcement comes a day after the proposal was floated in order to allow humanitarian organizations to bring much-needed aid into the war-torn Arab nation.
    It's not clear if the Houthis were consulted on this ceasefire plan, much less if they've signed off on it. And if the rebels aren't on board by Tuesday, al-Jubeir made clear the ceasefire won't happen.
    "This ceasefire will be throughout Yemen or nowhere in Yemen, and the matter is entirely up to Houthis and their allies," the Saudi minister said Friday in Paris alongside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. "... This is, I believe, a chance for the Houthis to show that they care about their people and they care about the Yemeni people."
    Still, there's no guarantee that there will be even a temporary lull in the violence starting next week.
    On Thursday, two senior Houthi officials told CNN that Houthi leaders would meet and discuss the Saudi ceasefire proposal. So far, though, peace has been elusive.
    Any respite would be a blessing, and a change, for the nation of more than 27 million people. Yemenis have been dealing with violence for months, and it ratcheted up significantly with the March start of Saudi-led strikes on the Houthis and in support of Hadi, who is now outside Yemen but claims he is still its legitimate President.

    'A really catastrophic situation'

    Peace can't come soon enough for Llanos Ortiz, a Doctors Without Borders official who spoke to CNN on Friday from Abbs from northern Yemen's Hajjah province, which neighbors Saada.
    Ortiz said her colleagues have been working with local health officials to treat people at Saada's Al Gumhury Hospital, many of them wounded by the Saudi-led airstrikes. The volunteers are having trouble providing even essential care, a challenge that Ortiz said could get worse if the fighting intensifies.
    "We really call on (the Saudi coalition) to stop attacking civilians and hospitals," said the official from the group also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). "Our team is safe (for now, and) they are working really hard."
    She said most Saada province residents didn't get the Saudis' warning to evacuate until Friday morning. For many, that didn't leave enough time to get out. And even if they could gather up everyone and everything, many couldn't leave because they can't gas up their vehicles, and buses are nowhere to be found.
    "The situation is really desperate for many people," Ortiz said. "... We are witnessing a really catastrophic situation."
    A ceasefire would be heartily welcomed. Still, the MSF official has no illusions that five days without fighting will get Yemen right again. That will take weeks, months, if not years, given all the death and destruction nationwide.
    "(With) the huge level of damage done, it will take a long time to recover even if the ceasefire is respected," Ortiz said. "Basically, all infrastructure has been damaged, and nothing works properly in (Yemen). The country has been under siege for weeks."