- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

SAN’A, Yemen | Yemen offered a conditional cease-fire Saturday to the Shi’ite rebels it is battling in the north, following international concern over a deadly air strike against civilians displaced from the war zones.

Within hours, however, both sides released statements accusing the other of breaking the cease-fire. According to the statements, clashes resumed in the front-line town of Harf Sufyan.

The government offer came after both the U.N. and the U.S. urged a halt to the fighting to allow food supplies and medical aid to reach the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled their homes.

Rebels responded cautiously to the offer, which came right before the Eid al-Fitr holiday ending the fasting month of Ramadan, saying they would monitor the situation on the ground first.

On Wednesday, government jets bombed a makeshift camp packed with displaced people near Harf Sufyan, and witnesses put the death toll at 87, most of them women and children.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an investigation, and the U.S. Embassy in San’a expressed concern over the strikes Friday. Both also urged an end to the fighting, echoing earlier calls by aid agencies.

The government said the cease-fire was in response to the international calls and the approaching holiday. This is the second cease-fire in two weeks; the last one fell apart in a matter of hours.

The government has set down five conditions for the end of hostilities, including removing road blocks, withdrawal of rebel forces, release of detained military personnel and property, and abiding by the constitution and law.

The rebels, however, have insisted on an unconditional cease-fire.

“We welcome the cease-fire offer. We have been seeking an unconditional cease-fire deal for a long time. As for the terms, they should be discussed in a dialogue at a negotiating table,” rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam said.

The Shi’ite tribesmen, led by Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi, have so far refused to hand over their weapons or release any prisoners. They accuse the government of not fulfilling its obligations under previous agreements, including freeing rebel detainees, paying compensation to victims and rebuilding villages ravaged by fighting.

Yemen’s government is embroiled in a five-year conflict with Shi’ite rebels in the country’s north. The rebels complain their needs are ignored by the government and that the government is increasingly allying with hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, some of whom consider Shi’ites to be heretics.

Some 150,000 Yemenis have fled their homes since fighting began in 2004, cramming into camps, schools and barns as aid groups struggle to bring in supplies.

Fighting escalated dramatically in early August, when the rebels captured an army post on a strategic highway between the capital and the Saudi border. Fighting has come within 75 miles of the capital.

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