The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen announced Wednesday that its forces would begin a cease-fire starting Thursday, a step that could pave the way for the first direct peace talks between the two sides that have been at war for more than five years.
In a statement carried by Saudi Arabia's official state news agency, a Saudi military spokesman, Col. Turki al-Malki, said that the ceasefire would last two weeks and that it comes in response to U.N. calls to halt hostilities amid the coronavirus pandemic. He said the ceasefire could be extended to pave the way for all the parties "to discuss proposals, steps, and mechanisms for sustainable ceasefire in Yemen ... for a comprehensive political solution in Yemen."
There was no immediate reaction from Houthi leaders or Yemen's internationally recognized government to the coalition's statement.
Within hours of the announcement, residents in the contested Yemeni province Marib said a suspected Houthi missile struck a security building in the city center. There was no immediate claim of responsibility or reports of casualties. A Yemeni presiderntial adviser, Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi, blamed the Houthis, saying on Twitter that the attack shows the rebels "are fueling war not peace."
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called for a cease-fire in all global conflicts on March 23 to tackle the virus and specifically called two days later for a cessation in Yemen, welcomed the announcement, saying: "This can help to advance efforts towards peace as well as the country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
He urged Yemen's government, which is backed by the Saudi-led coalition, and the Houthis "to follow through on their commitment to immediately cease hostilities" in response to his March 25 plea and to engage with each other without preconditions in negotiations facilitated by the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths.
"Only through dialogue will the parties be able to agree on a mechanism for sustaining a nation-wide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic confidence-building measures to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the resumption of the political process to reach a comprehensive settlement to end the conflict," Guterres said in a statement.
Guterres said earlier this month that warring parties in 11 countries had responded positively to his appeal for a global cease-fire to tackle the virus. Guterres said then that the world faces "a common enemy — COVID-19," which doesn't care "about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith."
Heavy fighting in Yemen between coalition-backed government forces and the Houthis killed more than 270 people the past 10 days, government officials and tribal leaders said Wednesday. The two sides are battling over for the key border province of Jawf and the oil-rich central province of Marib. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, while the tribal leaders did want to be quoted by name out of fear of reprisals.
The flare-up in fighting came at a time Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile targeted at their capital, Riyadh, late last month. The Houthis frequently launch missiles across Yemen's border into Saudi Arabia, but it's rare that they reach the capital.
The war has proved costly for Saudi Arabia and has damaged its image abroad. The calls for peace come amid a trying time. The country is engaged in an international price war over the cost of oil, having pushed its production higher to try to take back market share from Russia and the United States. International rights groups criticized Saudi Arabia over the conflict and the humanitarian toll. Saudi Arabia is also battling the coronavirus outbreak, with 2,932 confirmed cases and 41 deaths.
Iran, which backs the Houthis, is also facing challenges at home. As the worst-hit country in the Middle East, it has 67,286 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3,993 deaths.
Al-Malki, the coalition spokesman, said the ceasefire was aimed at "building confidence" between the two warring parties and to support the United Nations-led initiative to end the war.
Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, has been convulsed by civil war since 2014. That is when the Iranian-backed Houthis took control of the country's north, including the capital of Sanaa. The Saudi-led military coalition intervened against the Houthis the following year, conducting relentless airstrikes and a blockade of Yemen.
Past attempts at ending the conflict have stalled. A 2018 peace agreement, brokered by the U.N. in Sweden, led to a rough road map to end righting in the key port city of Hodeida but brought little actual progress.
The talks proposed by Al-Malki would be the first face-to-face peace negotiations among the Saudis, Houthis and government since the war started. In addition to representatives from the two warring parties, al-Malki said a Saudi military team would also be present.
In the past, informal and secretive talks took place inside Saudi Arabia and Oman between the Houthis and Saudis. Both sides blamed the failure of the talks on manipulation by Saudi Arabia or Iran.
The conflict has killed over 100,000 people and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.
Authorities in Yemen have yet to announce a confirmed case of the coronavirus, but experts fear the virus could eventually prove deadly there after the years of devastation by the war.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidelines for essential workers, such as those in the health care and food supply industries. The guidance is focused on when those workers can return to work after having been exposed to the new coronavirus.
— Do take your temperature before work.
— Do wear a face mask at all times.
— Do practice social distancing as work duties permit.
— Don't stay at work if you become sick
— Don't share headsets or objects used near face.
— Don't congregate in the break room or other crowded places.
The CDC also issued guidance for employers in essential industries.
— Do take employees' temperature and assess for symptoms prior to their starting work.
— Do increase the frequency of cleaning commonly touched surfaces.
— Do increase air exchange in the building.
— Do send sick workers home immediately.
— Do test the use of face masks to ensure they don't interfere with workflow.
Even as coronavirus deaths mount across Europe and New York, the U.S. and other countries are starting to contemplate an exit strategy and thinking about a staggered and carefully calibrated easing of restrictions designed to curb the scourge.
"To end the confinement, we're not going to go from black to white; we're going to go from black to gray," top French epidemiologist Jean-François Delfraissy said in a radio interview.
Deaths, hospitalizations and new infections are leveling off in places like Italy and Spain, and even New York has seen encouraging signs amid the gloom. At the same time, politicians and health officials warn that the crisis is far from over and a catastrophic second wave could hit if countries let down their guard too soon.
"We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "But it's not a time to be complacent. It's not a time to do anything different than we've been doing."
In a sharp reminder of the danger, New York state on Wednesday recorded its highest one-day increase in deaths, 779, for an overall death toll of almost 6,300.
"The bad news is actually terrible," Cuomo lamented. Still, the governor said that hospitalizations are decreasing and that many of those now dying fell ill in the outbreak's earlier stages.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was issuing new guidelines for some workers who have been within 6 feet of someone with a confirmed or suspected infection to go back on the job if they have no symptoms. The guidelines apply to employees in critical fields such as health care and food supply and require they take their temperature beforehand, wear face masks at all times and practice social distancing.
In other developments:
— Stocks shot 3.4% higher on Wall Street amid the encouraging signs about the outbreak's trajectory. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 780 points.
— U.S. researchers opened another safety test of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, this one using a skin-deep shot instead of the usual deeper jab. A different vaccine candidate began safety testing in people last month in Seattle.
— British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a second night in intensive care but was improving and sitting up in bed, authorities said.
— Saudi Arabian officials announced that the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen will begin a cease-fire starting Thursday. They said the two-week truce was in response to U.N. calls to halt hostilities around the world amid the epidemic.
In China, the lockdown of Wuhan, the industrial city of 11 million where the global pandemic began, was lifted after 76 days, allowing people to come and go. The country on Thursday announced two additional deaths in Wuhan but no new cases there.
Wuhan residents will have to use a smartphone app showing that they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus. Schools remain closed, people are still checked for fever when they enter buildings and masks are strongly encouraged.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States' top infectious-diseases expert, said the Trump administration has been working on plans to eventually reopen the country amid evidence that social distancing is working to stop the virus's spread.
But he said it's not time to scale back such measures: "Keep your foot on the accelerator because this is what is going to get us through this," he said at Wednesday's White House briefing.
Vice President Mike Pence warned that Philadelphia was emerging as a potential hot spot, saying that he spoke to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and that Pittsburgh was also being monitored for a possible rise in cases.
The U.S. is also seeing hot spots in such places as Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Chicago, Detroit and Colorado. The New York metropolitan area, which includes northern New Jersey, Long Island and lower Connecticut, accounts for about half of all virus deaths in the U.S.
Pence said he would speak to leaders in African-American communities who are concerned about disproportionate impacts from the virus. Fauci acknowledged that historic disparities in health care have put African-Americans at risk for diseases that make them more vulnerable in the outbreak, adding that makes it even more imperative for communities of color to practice social distancing.
In Europe, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte is expected to announce in the coming days how long the country's lockdown will remain in place amid expectations that some restrictions could be eased. Discussions are focused first on opening more of the country's industries.
Proposals being floated in Italy include the issuing of immunity certificates, which would require antibody blood tests, and allowing younger workers to return first, as they are less vulnerable to the virus.
Italy, the hardest-hit country, recorded its biggest one-day jump yet in people counted as recovered and had its smallest one-day increase in deaths in more than a month. Nearly 18,000 have died there.
In Spain, which has tallied more than 14,000 dead, Budget Minister María Jesús Montero said Spaniards will progressively regain their "normal life" from April 26 onwards but warned that the "de-escalation" of the lockdown will be "very orderly to avoid a return to the contagion."
The government has been tight-lipped about what measures could be in place once the confinement is relaxed, stressing that they will be dictated by experts
Without giving specifics, French authorities have likewise begun to speak openly of planning the end of the country's confinement period, which is set to expire April 15 but will be extended, according to the president's office. The virus has claimed more than 10,000 lives in France.
Earlier this week, Austria and the Czech Republic jumped out ahead of other European countries and announced plans to relax some restrictions.
Starting Thursday, Czech stores selling construction materials, hobby supplies and bicycles will be allowed to reopen. Only grocery stores, pharmacies and garden stores are up and running. The reopened businesses will have to offer customers disinfectant and disposable gloves and enforce social distancing.
Austria will begin reopening small shops, hardware stores and garden centers on Tuesday, and shopping malls and hair salons could follow two weeks later. People will have to wear face masks.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said authorities will watch carefully and will "pull the emergency brake" if the virus makes a comeback.
British government officials, beset with a rising death toll of more than 7,000, said there is little chance the nationwide lockdown there will be eased when its current period ends next week.
The desire to get back to normal is driven in part by the damage to world economies.
The Bank of France said the French economy has entered recession, with an estimated 6% drop in the first quarter compared with the previous three months, while Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse, is also facing a deep recession. Expert said its economy will shrink 4.2% this year.
Japan, the world's third-largest economy, could contract by a record 25% this quarter, the highest since gross domestic product began to be tracked in 1955.
Worldwide, 1.5 million people have been confirmed infected and around 90,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are almost certainly much higher, because of limited testing, different rules for counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
For most, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and death. Over 300,000 people have recovered.
Taiwan's foreign ministry on Thursday strongly protested accusations from the head of the World Health Organization that it condoned racist personal attacks on him that he alleged were coming from the self-governing island democracy.
The ministry expressed "strong dissatisfaction and a high degree of regret, and raised the most solemn protest." Taiwan is a "mature, highly sophisticated nation and could never instigate personal attacks on the director-general of the WHO, much less express racist sentiments," the statement said.
Taiwan's 23 million people have themselves been "severely discriminated against" by the politics of the international health system and "condemn all forms of discrimination and injustice," the statement said.
On Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused Taiwan's foreign ministry of being linked to a months-long campaign against him amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At a press briefing, Tedros said that since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, he has been personally attacked, including receiving at times, death threats and racist abuse.
"This attack came from Taiwan," said Tedros, who is a former Ethiopian health and foreign minister and the WHO's first African leader.
He said Taiwanese diplomats were aware of the attacks but did not dissociate themselves from them. "They even started criticizing me in the middle of all those insults and slurs," Tedros said. "I say it today because it's enough." The basis of his allegations were unclear.
Tedros was elected with the strong support of China, one of five permanent veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council and which claims Taiwan as its own territory. He has firmly backed Beijing's claims to have been open and transparent about the outbreak, despite strong evidence that it suppressed early reports on infections, while echoing its criticisms of the U.S.
At China's insistence, Taiwan has been barred from the U.N. and the WHO and even stripped of its observer status at the annual World Health Assembly. At the same time, it has one of the most robust public health systems in the world, and has won praise for its handling of the virus outbreak.
Despite its close proximity to China and the frequency of travel between the sides, Taiwan has reported just 379 cases and five deaths.
U.S. and Taiwanese officials met online last month to discuss ways of increasing the island's participation in the world health system, sparking fury from Beijing, which opposes all official contacts between Washington and Taipei.
Also at Wednesday's briefing, Tedros sought to rise above sharp criticism and threats of funding cuts from President Donald Trump over the WHO's response to the outbreak.
The vocal defense came a day after Trump blasted the agency for being "China-centric" and alleging that it had "criticized" his ban of travel from China as the COVID-19 outbreak was spreading from the city of Wuhan.
In a further comment on Tedros' remarks, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu tweeted that the island agreed with his assertion that there was, "No need to use COVID to score political points."
"We agree! Yet without evidence, #Taiwan is accused of orchestrating personal attacks. This claim is baseless, without merit & further marginalizes the good work in which the @WHO is engaged worldwide," Wu tweeted.
Tedros had not appeared to have accused the Taiwanese government of being directly behind the attacks, but merely of condoning them.
The global death toll from coronavirus has reached 88,502 as of Thursday morning.
Besides, it has infected 1,518,719 people around the world after the highly contagious disease was first reported in China in December last year, according to worldometer.
Of those infected, 1,099,628 are currently being treated with 48,079 being in serious or critical condition.
So far, 330,589 people have recovered.
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic on March 11.
Bangladesh on Wednesday reported three more coronavirus deaths and 54 new cases.
The country has so far confirmed 218 cases and 20 deaths.