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Somebody Isn't Telling the Truth About the 'Pause' in Yemen Fighting

Different sides are telling different stories about who said what about a supposed humanitarian 'pause' in fighting that so far has been anything but.

by Samuel Oakford
Jul 13 2015, 10:55pm

Imagen por Yahya Arhab/EPA

Amid a hail of airstrikes and shelling in Yemen, the United Nations repeated on Monday that the country's president told the organization he'd conveyed to Saudi Arabia's air coalition his support for a humanitarian "pause" that began late Friday — a pause that has been completely ignored by all sides.

Over the weekend, coalition officials had said that President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, currently in Riyadh, had never told them of his support for the pause, which the UN announced on Thursday.

Upon revealing the pause, the UN said in a statement that "the president has communicated his acceptance of the pause to the Coalition to ensure their support and collaboration." A spokesperson added that the UN had received further assurances from Houthi rebels and other parties "that the pause will be fully respected, and that there will be no violations from any combatants under their control."

Related: Everyone Is Ignoring the Ceasefire in Yemen

But what followed Friday's 11:59pm start to the pause was not the setting down of arms. Instead, fighting continued to rage in several cities, and within hours — or in some case, reportedly in minutes — Saudi Arabia's coalition continued its air campaign in several cities, including the capital Sanaa, as well as Taiz and Aden, in Yemen's south.

Hisham Al-Omeisy, a Sanaa-based political analyst, told VICE News the airstrikes over the weekend seemed at times to be heavier than they were prior to the pause. In several instances, he said, they struck residential areas.

"There are just so many, especially over the past two days," he said. "You have a lot of people making sarcastic remarks, saying, 'If the pause means this insane amount of airstrikes, perhaps we should go to the pre-pause level."

On Monday, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that "Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] is very, very much disappointed that the humanitarian pause did not take hold over the weekend."

Asked about Saudi claims regarding Hadi's communications, Dujarric reaffirmed that "President Hadi advised us that he had informed the government of Saudi Arabia of his support for the pause. Obviously, different people are saying different things."

On Monday, Houthi officials and medical workers told the Associated Press that 25 civilians were killed by an airstrike in Sanaa, which reportedly wounded 50 others. According to the UN, more than 3,000 people — roughly of half of them civilians — have died since the start of coalition bombings in late March.

Other sources on the ground in Sanaa describe the bombing on Sunday as particularly intense. Late Monday, they said the sound of jets above Sanaa could be heard alongside Houthi anti aircraft fire.

Watch VICE News' 'Yemen: A Failed State.'

On Monday, American State Department spokesperson John Kirby said he thought that "there wasn't" an effort made by Washington to persuade Saudi Arabia to observe the UN pause.

"The humanitarian pause really didn't take root on either side," Kirby said, attempting to explain the lack of pressure from the Obama administration on their allies.

Kirby added his view that there was no contradiction in US backing of the Saudis and their parallel claim to support a peaceful, UN-brokered solution to the crisis in Yemen.

"We've continued to call for restraint and a humanitarian pause," he said. 

The Saudi air campaign, which has received logistical assistance from the US and several European countries, is being carried out with the professed goal of repelling the Houthis and reinstalling Hadi in power. But after more than three months of strikes, the Houthis remain in control of much of Yemen's populated areas, including Sanaa. The rebels, who hail from a Shia minority whose historical base was in the country's north — and who have reportedly received support from Iran — are currently engaged in street battles in both Aden and Taiz. Like the coalition, the Houthis have been accused of killing civilians, at times with anti-aircraft fire that lands in populated areas.

Omeisy said that many Yemenis were skeptical of the pause even before it began, especially considering the fact that battle lines drawn between Houthis and rival armed groups in Taiz and Aden are in some cases only about 100 yards apart.

The humanitarian pause, which would have lasted until the end of Ramadan on July 17, was meant to allow increased access to more of the estimated 21 million Yemenis that the UN says are in need of assistance. A de-facto blockade of the country by the coalition has seen imports of basic goods, food, and fuel reduced to a trickle. In many cities, fuel required to power cars and run hospital generators is available only at exorbitant prices.

Related: Yemen Jailbreak Frees 1,200 Inmates, Including Al Qaeda Suspects

Omeisy said the airstrikes have also caused a rise in another precious commodity: sleep aids.

"Sleeping pill sales have skyrocketed in Sanaa," he said. "You used to buy them for $12, now it costs you $50. But otherwise you just stay awake because your home starts shaking and you don't know whether you'll get it."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford