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Saudi Arabia Looks To End Yemen Bombing Campaign


A year ago this week, Saudi Arabia started launching airstrikes against Shiite rebels in Yemen. The Saudis said the military campaign would be quick and limited. Thousands of deaths later, the bombing goes on, but there are signs that Saudi Arabia is ready to find a way out, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Saudis and the Shiite rebels known as the Houthis are talking to each other and even exchanging prisoners. That is welcome news to the man who's trying to resolve this war, U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. He's hoping for a nationwide cease-fire by April 10.


ISMAIL OULD CHEIKH AHMED: If we fail this time, this probably one of our last chance to get an end to this war. It will get more complication. This is really our last chance.

KELEMEN: The war in Yemen is a highly complex one. While the Saudis have controlled the skies, no one is anywhere close to a real military victory on the ground, says April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group.

APRIL LONGLEY ALLEY: There needs to be pressure on all sides and quickly and really attention on Yemen right now because we have this very fragile moment of opportunity that could build to the national cease-fire we want.

KELEMEN: She believes the U.S. is sending that message privately to their allies the Saudis, but that may not be enough.

ALLEY: As we see it, certainly that quiet advice behind the scenes has been contradicted by actions.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has been resupplying the Saudi military. Human Rights Watch is calling on the U.S. to stop in the face of growing civilian casualties, indiscriminate airstrikes on hospitals and markets and a Saudi naval blockade that has left most Yemenis in desperate need of aid.

Saudi Arabia says it will set up a commission to investigate civilian deaths, and officials argue that their country had to act to stop Houthi rebels they say are backed by Iran. A former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, says this war has been disastrous.

BARBARA BODINE: The infrastructure, the health structure, the education structure and, in many ways, more importantly, the social structure have just been devastated.

KELEMEN: While Yemen may not be a top priority for the Obama administration, Bodine, now at Georgetown University, says it should be. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, seems to be thriving in this chaos.

BODINE: If you want to look at it in realist terms, the only real beneficiaries have been AQAP and ISIS. That's clearly not in our interest. And I do think we have a broader humanitarian concern.

KELEMEN: Since the Saudis entered the war and fighting intensified, more than 3,000 civilians have been killed. The United Nations has an ambitious timeline to start winding down this conflict and begin political talks in mid-April. Those negotiations will be incredibly difficult, says Alley of the International Crisis Group.

ALLEY: We go back to all of those issues then that started the conflict in the first place that are unresolved, that are more difficult - the structure of the state, national-level power sharing in the military and in the government. And the road to peace is going to be long and difficult in Yemen.

KELEMEN: In the early days of the Arab uprisings, Yemen was actually held up as a model. The region came together on a political transition plan. That bargain fell apart, though, and Alley says it will be much harder now to put Yemen back on track. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.