Leader of Yemen’s northern rebels accepts government’s cease-fire conditions

By Ahmed Al-haj, AP
Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yemeni rebel leader accepts cease-fire conditions

SAN’A, Yemen — The leader of Yemen’s northern rebels said Saturday he is ready to accept government conditions for a cease-fire to bring a halt to an intensifying war that has devastated the area and even drawn in the military of neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Yemen has come under international pressure to quickly end more than five years of sporadic battles with the rebels to free up resources to confront a separate threat from an al-Qaida offshoot that established a base of operations in the country a year ago.

The northern rebels, ferocious fighters who know the mountainous terrain better than Yemen’s army, appear to be seizing on the international pressure to end the conflict. The fighting intensified in August, claiming an undetermined number of lives and sending 125,000 people fleeing their homes.

In an audio recording posted on Yemeni Web sites Saturday, rebel leader Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi said the “unjust” war against the rebels has only brought destruction, weakened the government and caused international interference in Yemen’s affairs.

“Because we are interested in stopping the bloodshed, avoiding a catastrophe and stopping the extermination of civilians, we renew for the fourth time that we accept the five conditions following the end of hostilities,” al-Hawthi said. “The ball now is in the court of the government, which says it is fighting us for these conditions.”

The government offered the cease-fire in September but said the rebels must first disarm, remove roadblocks, withdraw from strategic mountain positions, release captured soldiers and property and abide by the constitution.

There was no immediate government response to al-Hawthi’s statement. Several earlier cease-fires quickly disintegrated, mainly because the rebels said their demands were not addressed.

The rebels say their community of Shiite Muslims from the Zaydi sect suffer discrimination and neglect and that the government has allowed ultraconservative Sunni extremists too strong a voice in the country. Hard-line Sunnis consider Shiites heretics.

Two security officials close to efforts to negotiate a truce told The Associated Press the rebel declaration is part of arrangements under way to end the conflict. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

According to the arrangements, the rebels are to end attacks on Saudi forces deployed just across the border and implement the government’s conditions within 30 days, the officials said.

It was not clear if the government was offering to free rebel prisoners or make any other concessions in return.

The rebels on Tuesday announced a unilateral cease-fire with Saudi Arabia, which was drawn into the conflict in November after cross-border raids by the rebels. The Saudis have lost 133 soldiers in the fighting. The Saudis have demanded a rebel pullback from border positions and the return of six missing soldiers.

Yemen and its many crises have become a major concern to the U.S., Europe and the Middle East out of concern the instability will allow a new al-Qaida offshoot to cement its presence there.

An international conference in London on Wednesday warned that Yemen risks providing a permanent new haven for al-Qaida without urgent help to quell the internal revolts and rebuild the deteriorating economy.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, formed by Saudi and Yemeni operatives in January 2009, has found shelter in tribal regions beyond the weak government’s control.

The group claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit.

On Saturday, authorities said they detained a would-be suicide bomber from the group in Yemen’s eastern Hadramawt province.

The attacker, identified as Saleh al-Shawsh, was riding a motorcycle with an explosives belt on his body and two other bombs, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information publicly.

An initial interrogation revealed he had intended to carry out an attack on businesses, the official said.

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