BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia on Wednesday announced that the kingdom and its allies would observe a unilateral cease-fire in the war in Yemen starting at noon on Thursday, a move that could pave the way for ending the brutal five-year-old conflict.
Saudi officials said the cease-fire sought to jump-start peace talks brokered by the United Nations and had been motivated by fears of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where the health care system has been ravaged by years of blockade and conflict.
The gesture is the first by any government entangled in an international armed conflict to halt hostilities at least in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has traumatized the world. The leader of the United Nations, Secretary General António Guterres, pleaded for a worldwide humanitarian cease-fire two weeks ago because of the pandemic.
While Yemen is one of the few countries in the world yet to have a confirmed case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, aid workers fear that an outbreak there would be devastating for the war-torn country.
The cease-fire would include Saudi Arabia’s Arab allies and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, which was effectively toppled in 2014 when a rebel group aligned with Iran and known as the Houthis took over much of the country’s northwest and its capital, Sana.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have been fighting since to push the Houthis back and restore the Yemeni government — with little success.
The Houthis were not consulted before the cease-fire was announced, Saudi officials said, speaking on condition that they not be identified by name, and the kingdom reserved the right to respond if the Houthis fired missiles into Saudi territory.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations described Yemen as the worst man-made humanitarian disaster. A large majority of the country’s 28 million people face hunger, disease and other deprivations.