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Limited Cease-Fire Set To Begin In Yemen On Tuesday

ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels say they will accept a Saudi proposal for a five-day cease-fire to begin Tuesday. The announcement comes as Saudi-led warplanes continue to pound both northern Yemen and the capital. The U.N. says the air campaign has resulted in heavy civilian casualties. We'll speak with a witness to the bombings in Yemen shortly, but first, NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the latest developments from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: News that the Houthi rebels would respect the proposed cease-fire was greeted cautiously by U.N. officials who say the positive comments must be matched by actions on the ground. Even in agreeing to the five-day cessation of hostilities, both the rebels and Saudi-led coalition warned that any violation by the other side would lead to a resumption of attacks. In the meantime, the fighting rages on, including an airstrike on former President Ali Al Saleh's compound in the capital, Sana'a. The ex-leader has allied with the Iranian-backed Houthis, bringing with him renegade units from the Yemeni army who are fighting against forces loyal to the man Saleh handed power to, Yemen's exiled leader Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saleh appeared unhurt after the attack and gave a defiant TV interview. He's heard here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH: (Through translator) You should continue carrying your arms, ready to sacrifice your lives in defense against these belligerent attacks. I can describe this aggression as an act of cowards. If you are brave enough, come and face us on the battlefield.

KENYON: The greatest suffering is falling upon Yemeni civilians, who make up roughly half the estimated 1,400 fatalities since the Saudi air campaign began in March, according to the U.N. Paolo Lembo, the U.N. resident coordinator for Yemen told Al Jazeera's English channel that a safe humanitarian space is urgently needed to prevent even more civilians from dying in the coming days.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PAOLO LEMBO: The infrastructure system has been profoundly disrupted - roads, electricity, water. And many more people will die because of this damage of the infrastructure, the inability of the system to cater for the wounded than the war in itself.

KENYON: The U.N. has criticized the Saudi-led air campaign for its role in the civilian death toll. The airstrikes Sunday largely focused on targets in the Houthi stronghold of Sana'a in the north. If the cease-fire does take hold Tuesday, it will provide a calmer backdrop for a Thursday visit to Camp David by Gulf Arab leaders. The visit has been billed as an effort by the Obama administration to calm Arab fears about Iran increasing its role in the region, especially if a nuclear accord brings an easing of sanctions against Iran. But the conflict raging in Yemen, the Middle East's poorest country, is also likely to be high on the agenda. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.