Yemen’s Shiite insurgents, army rebels back 5-day ceasefire

WATCH ABOVE: Warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition pounded a military camp under the control of Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen’s capital Sanaa on Tuesday, hours before a humanitarian cease-fire was due to start.

SANAA, Yemen – With cargo ships poised to launch a desperately needed aid operation in embattled Yemen, a five-day humanitarian cease-fire began Tuesday night, just hours after Saudi-led coalition warplanes struck against Shiite rebels and their allies.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the two sides were honoring the cease-fire, which began at 11 p.m. (2000 GMT, 4 p.m. EDT). The halt to the fighting, which has killed hundreds of civilians, will test the adversaries’ desire to enter into peace talks. Both sides say they are ready to respond with violence if their opponent breaks the cease-fire.

Meanwhile, Iran said it was sending warships to protect an Iranian aid ship steaming toward a Yemeni port held by the rebel fighters, the Iranian state news agency said. The navy escort was denounced by the Pentagon as unnecessary, and raised the possibility of a confrontation near the strategic Bab el-Mandab strait in the Gulf of Aden.

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READ MORE: Saudi Arabia says operation against Yemen’s Houthi rebels over

The Saudi-led strikes in Yemen came to a halt shortly before the new U.N. envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, flew into the capital, Sanaa, on his first official visit to the country. He told reporters he planned to meet with the warring parties, including the rebels known as Houthis, and ensure that the cease-fire holds.

“We will discuss the humanitarian truce and the Yemeni parties’ return to the negotiating table,” he said.

The cease-fire is meant to help ease the suffering of civilians in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

Security officials said airstrikes overnight, at dawn and during the morning hours hit weapons depots and other military facilities north and south of Sanaa, a sprawling city of some 4 million people. The military air base that is part of the capital’s international airport also was targeted.

Ten strikes hit Sanaa from dawn until about noon Tuesday, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

Fierce fighting between the rebels and forces loyal to exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi also raged in the strategic city of Taiz, southwest of the capital. The rebels and their allies shelled residential areas, with one shell hitting a bus, killing nine people and wounding 40, officials said. A coalition airstrike targeted the city’s al-Qahira castle, where the shelling came from, they said.

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The Saudis and their allies are seeking the restoration of Hadi, who fled the country in March.

Meanwhile, a suspected U.S. drone strike hit a car, killing three al-Qaida fighters near Shabwa province, an area where the extremist group had been sending reinforcements. Witnesses and tribal elders said the vehicle burned and set off secondary explosions from ordnance it had been carrying. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety.

The conflict has killed more than 1,400 people — many of them civilians — since March 19, according to the U.N. The country of some 25 million people has endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of a Saudi-led naval, air and land blockade.

Anticipating the truce, the U.N. refugee agency said it plans to airlift 300 metric tons (330 tons) of sleeping mats, blankets, kitchen sets and plastic sheeting from stockpiles in Dubai.

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The airlift was part of what it called a “larger aid mobilization underway for a quarter of a million people.” The agency also will attempt to distribute aid already stored in Yemen and assess the needs for areas that have been difficult to reach.

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia says operation against Yemen’s Houthi rebels over

Separately, the U.N. World Food Program said it was ready to provide emergency food rations to more than 750,000 people. A vessel chartered by the agency arrived in the Red Sea port of Hodeida on Saturday, carrying 250,000 liters (66,050 gallons) of fuel and supplies for other humanitarian agencies. A second vessel is ready to dock with an additional 120,000 liters (31,700 gallons) of fuel.

Tuesday’s airstrikes came one day after the coalition pounded a mountainside on the northeastern edge of Sanaa, hitting arms and ammunition depots. The bombardment shook the entire city, causing some homes to collapse. They also caused shells in the depots to explode. Munitions also hit residential areas, starting fires.

The Houthi-held Health Ministry said Tuesday that preliminary figures show that Monday’s airstrikes killed 69 people and wounded more than 100, mostly civilians. Among the dead were eight members of one family, said family member Mohammed al-Watary.

He said three of his younger siblings, ages 3 to 7, were killed when a rocket from an ammunition depot smashed into the family’s home. Five female relatives also died, while his mother and two female relatives were badly wounded, he said.

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The officials said the strikes were among the strongest in Sanaa since the Saudi-led air campaign began March 26 against the Houthi rebels and their allies in the army and security forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

READ MORE: U.S. warship to intercept Iranian weapons shipments near Yemen

The Houthis and Saleh’s forces overran Sanaa and much of northern Yemen late last year and have been on the offensive in the south. Western nations say Shiite power Iran supports the Houthis military — something the rebels and the Islamic Republic deny.

Iran said the aid ship it was sending carried food, medicine, tents and blankets, as well as rescue workers, journalists and peace activists and was expected to arrive next week in the port of Hodeida, seized by the Houthis and their allies last fall.

U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren in Washington said the U.S. was monitoring the Iranian vessel. He warned that it would not be helpful if Iran is “planning some sort of stunt,” recommending that Tehran instead send the vessel to Djibouti, where humanitarian efforts for Yemen are being coordinated.

The Saudis and their allies are seeking the restoration of Hadi, who fled the country in March.

Also Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said the Houthis have intensified the recruitment of children in the conflict in violation of international law. Since the rebels seized Sanaa in September, it said, the Houthis increasingly used children as scouts, guards, runners and fighters, with some children being wounded or killed.

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“The Houthis and other armed groups using child soldiers in Yemen should immediately stop recruiting children, including ‘volunteers,’ and release all children in their ranks,” it said.

Security officials said Monday the Houthis were recruiting boys as young as 15 to fight in Saada, a rebel stronghold north of the capital, against Sunni tribesmen trying to enter the province along the border with Saudi Arabia.

Islamic militant websites, meanwhile, said Tuesday that four leading members of Yemen’s al-Qaida branch were killed the previous day in a suspected U.S. drone strike in a southern port city.

The four died in Mukalla on the Arabian Sea, where rockets believed to have been fired by U.S. drones hit al-Qaida militants based in the city’s presidential residence, according to security officials.

The militant Aamaq website, affiliated with the Islamic State group, said the four included Maamoun Hatem, an Islamic State sympathizer. The compound in Mukalla was recently captured by al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, which is viewed by Washington as the terror group’s most dangerous affiliate.

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