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Yemen ceasefire begins ahead of peace talks

AFP / Abdullah Al-Qadry | Yemeni tribesmen from the Popular Resistance Committees, supporting forces loyal to President Hadi, hold a position west of the city of Marib, on December 14, 2015

A ceasefire began in Yemen on Tuesday to pave the way for UN-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country said, though there were reports of intense fighting leading up to the truce.

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Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri said the ceasefire had started at noon (09:00 GMT) as scheduled.

It had originally been planned for midnight (21:00 GMT) on Monday, but was postponed just moments before the truce was due to take effect.

Yemen: A country torn apart by civil war

The coalition, which launched an air campaign against the Houthi Shiite rebels in March, agreed to a ceasefire at the request of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, after he declared his government's intention to have a seven-day truce to coincide with talks opening in Geneva.

The ceasefire is to be "renewed automatically if the other party commits to it", the coalition has said, though it insists it "reserves the right to respond in case of any violation".

The rebel forces have yet to say if they will abide by the ceasefire.

Civilian deaths

Just hours before the ceasefire began, air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition killed at least 15 civilians, according to residents, as war planes launched two raids on the village of Bani al-Haddad, in the northern Hajjah province on the border with Saudi Arabia.

A total of 13 people were killed in the strikes, launched late Monday, and 20 others wounded, said locals. Two more residents died while medics were trying to evacuate them, they said.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition could not be reached for immediate comment but the alliance says it does not target civilians.

In southwestern Yemen, coalition forces captured the Red Sea island of Zuqur, part of the Hanish Archipelago that controls the main sea route near the strait of Bab al-Mandab, Saudi state television reported quoting the coalition spokesman.

The island contains the highest mountain in the area, which gives the coalition control over the waterway.

Residents also reported air strikes in Dhamar and Hodeida provinces and ground clashes in the city of Taiz, a focal point of fighting between the Houthis and Hadi supporters, as well as in Marib, east of the capital Sanaa.

The coalition has been waging mainly air strikes on the Houthis after the rebels seized control of much of the country beginning from September 2014.

The Houthis say their actions are aimed at state corruption and against the militant Islamist al Qaeda, while the Saudi-led coalition sees the Houthis as furthering rival Iran’s efforts to expand its influence into the Arabian Peninsula.

Two senior commanders from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were among dozens of fighters killed in a rocket strike in southwestern Yemen, according to local media and Yemeni sources on Monday.

A previous round of peace talks in Geneva in June failed to produce a breakthrough, with each side blaming the other for the failure of the talks.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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