The Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen has said it has stopped carrying out attacks to pave the way for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
The move comes amid growing diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire agreement after more than six years of devastating war.
It also followed reports that the coalition had struck a Houthi armoured division near the rebel-held capital Sanaa on Thursday. Correspondents with the AFP news agency in the city heard loud explosions and saw smoke rising in the sky. The Houthis did not immediately comment on the explosion.
Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki told Saudi state television that “no military operation has been carried out in the vicinity of Sanaa or any other Yemeni cities in the past period”.
The de-escalation is aimed at “preparing the political ground for a peace process in Yemen”, he said.
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened to support the Yemeni government in 2015 after the Houthis had captured Sanaa the previous year, forcing the government to flee.
The war in Yemen has led to what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands killed, millions displaced and two-thirds of its 30 million population dependent on aid.
Al-Maliki’s comments came amid a months-long Houthi offensive to seize Marib city and its surrounding oilfields – the last significant pocket of government-held territory in northern Yemen.
Marib’s loss to the Houthis would be a big blow for Yemen’s government and could unleash a humanitarian disaster.
Diplomatic efforts have intensified this week. UN envoy Martin Griffiths held talks in Iran with the country’s foreign minister on a two-day visit, the second one this year, his office tweeted on Thursday.
Earlier this month, Omani officials visited Sanaa to try to convince the rebels to accept a ceasefire, according to rebel sources.
Oman’s Foreign Minister Badr Albusaidi arrived in the Saudi capital Riyadh for talks on Wednesday.
In another sign of progress in peace efforts, Houthi officials have begun repairing roads near Sanaa airport, local sources told AFP, indicating that the facility could soon be reopened.
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has controlled Yemen’s airspace since 2015. The Houthis have repeatedly demanded the reopening of Sanaa airport before any ceasefire.
Industry sources told Reuters news agency that construction work had begun in some parts of the airport, which has been targeted dozens of times by coalition air raids. The military alliance says the facility is used for arms smuggling, which the Houthis have denied.
Airport director Khaled al-Shayef said in a Twitter post on Wednesday that he met Yemeni airlines to discuss maintenance and equipment at the airport, and also held talks with the Yemen Oil Company on fuel supplies for aircraft.
The effort to secure peace in Yemen comes after Saudi Arabia and regional rival Iran restarted talks in April, with their first high-level meeting since Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016.