UN Middle East envoys urge warring parties to cease fighting now

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The United Nations envoys in the Middle East have urged all warring parties in the region to end hostilities and turn their focus to “the true fight of our lives” – tackling the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement on Saturday, the envoys for Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stressed that solidarity is required to face the challenge of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. But this cannot happen “if the guns of war and conflict are not silenced”, they said.

Many parties have responded positively to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s appeal on March 23 for immediate ceasefires, the five envoys said. But there was a need for stepped-up action, they said, with COVID-19 compounding the suffering of people caught up in conflicts in the Middle East.

“At a time like this, partisanship and narrow interests must yield to the greater cause and the good of the people,” their appeal said.

“That is why we echo the secretary-general in calling on all parties in the Middle East to work with the UN so we can ‘focus on the true fight of our lives’ which is COVID-19.”

The UN envoys called on all parties to conflicts to engage without preconditions in negotiations to immediately halt hostilities, to sustain existing ceasefires, and to achieve “longer-term resolutions to the persistent conflicts across the region”.

They also urged all feuding parties “to reach out across conflict lines and cooperate locally, regionally and globally to stop the rapid spread of the virus” and to allow access for humanitarian aid and “humanitarian releases”.

The appeal was signed by UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis and UN Special Representative for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.

Guterres said on April 3 that warring parties in 11 countries had responded positively to his ceasefire appeal: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

He told the UN Security Council in its first meeting on the coronavirus pandemic that he has been encouraged by the support for his call for a global ceasefire to all conflicts from world leaders, regional partners, civil society activists and religious leaders.

“From South America to Africa and from the Middle East to Asia we have seen conflict parties take some initial steps to end violence and fight the pandemic,” he said on Thursday. “Still, we must remain cautious, as any gains are fragile and easily reversible, as conflicts have festered for years, distrust is deep, and there are many spoilers.”

He also stressed that concerted international efforts, including by UN envoys, will be required to move from “good intentions to implementation”, noting that “in many of the most critical situations, we have seen no let-up in fighting, and some conflicts have even intensified”.

In Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country which is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, a two-week ceasefire proposed by the Saudi-led coalition backing the UN-recognised government went into effect on Thursday.

But Houthi rebels, who control northern Yemen and the capital, Sanaa, quickly dismissed the Saudi ceasefire as a ploy to boost its international standing and accused the coalition of several attacks on Thursday.

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