The initiative would include a UN-supervised nationwide ceasefire and reopening of air and sea links blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition, main pre-conditions of the Iran-backed rebels before any peace deal.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud speaks during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 22, 2021.
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud speaks during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 22, 2021. (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia has announced a plan to offer Yemen's Houthi rebels a ceasefire in the country's years-long war and allow a major airport to reopen in its capital, the kingdom's latest attempt to halt fighting that has sparked the world's worst humanitarian crisis in the Arab world's poorest nation.

The move by Saudi Arabia follows Yemen's Houthi rebels stepping up a campaign of drone and missile attacks targeting the kingdom's oil sites, briefly shaking global energy prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Saudi Arabia has waged a war that saw it internationally criticised for air strikes killing civilians and embargoes exacerbating hunger in a nation on the brink of famine.

“It is up to the Houthis now,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told journalists in a televised news conference in Riyadh. 

"The Houthis must decide whether to put their interests first or Iran’s interests first.”

But the Houthi group played down the Saudi offer, saying there is nothing new in the initiative.

Houthis chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam, however, said the Houthis would continue to talk with Riyadh, Muscat and Washington to try to reach a peace agreement.

"Opening the airports and seaports is a humanitarian right and should not be used as a pressure tool," he added.

The Houthis have demanded the lifting of an air and sea blockade, which has contributed to the world's worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as their main pre-condition before any peace deal.

The Saudi-led coalition has said the port and airport must be restricted to prevent weapons from reaching the Houthis who control the capital and most populous areas.

READ MORE: Yemenis protest poor living conditions for second day in Aden

Conflicting demands

Saudi Arabia made two concessions to the Houthis in the plan, while not offering everything the rebels previously wanted. The first involves reopening Sanaa International Airport, a vital link for Yemen to the outside world that hasn’t seen regular commercial flights since 2015. 

Officials did not immediately identify what commercial routes they wanted to see resume.

The second would see taxes, customs and other fees generated by Yemen’s Hudaida port while importing oil put into a joint account of Yemen’s Central Bank.

That money would be accessible to the Houthis and Yemen’s recognised government to pay civil servants and fund other programs, officials said.

The Saudi government and the Yemeni government they back have accused the Houthis of stealing those funds in the past. A UN panel of experts’ report this year said the Houthis “diverted” some $200 million from that fund.

READ MORE: UN urges Yemen’s Houthis to allow access to migrants injured in fire

Ongoing conflict

Whether such a plan will take hold remains another question. A unilaterally declared Saudi ceasefire collapsed last year. 

Fighting rages around the crucial city of Marib and the Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes as recently as Sunday targeting Yemen's capital, Sanaa. 

A United Nations mission said another suspected air strike hit a food-production company in the port city of Hudaida.

"Local authorities and company management stated that six injured workers were transferred to local medical facilities for treatment," the UN mission in Hudaida, UNMHA, said in a statement on Monday.

The Houthi-controlled Ministry of Commerce and Industry said attacks on the port were part of the "economic warfare against the Yemeni people."

The Sanaa-based Al Masirah TV channel also reported other air strikes in Marib, where heavy fighting has raged over the last few months amid a Houthi offensive to take the gas-producing region.

It added that other strikes hit Hajjah province overnight.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen's civil war in 2015 to try to restore the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi that was ousted by the Houthis in 2014.

The war, which has been a military stalemate for years, has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions on the brink of famine.

READ MORE: Clashes between pro-govt forces, Houthis kill scores in Yemen's Marib

Source: TRTWorld and agencies