RIYADH - A Saudi-led coalition declared an end Tuesday to four weeks of air strikes in Yemen, saying it had eliminated the threat of Iran-backed rebels, as Washington welcomed the move and urged talks to end the crisis.
The coalition said its operations have entered a political phase but left open the option of resuming strikes if the movements of the Huthi Shiite rebels warrant it, while adding that a naval and air blockade on the strategic country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula will continue.
Shiite Iran welcomed the decision, calling it a "step forward" toward resolving the conflict, while there was no immediate reaction from the Huthis.
In a televised speech from Riyadh, exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi promised "victory... and we will soon return to our homeland, to Aden and (the capital) Sanaa."
A coalition of Sunni Arab nations launched the strikes in a bid to restore the authority of Hadi, who fled to the Saudi capital as the Shiite rebels advanced on the key southern city of Aden.
The coalition has said it carried out more than 2,000 strikes, gained complete control of Yemeni airspace and knocked out rebel infrastructure. However, the capital Sanaa remains in the hands of the rebels who took control in September.
While the White House said it "welcomed" the decision to halt air strikes, it urged talks to end the crisis that threatened to draw regional powers into direct conflict.
The announcement came as a US aircraft carrier was headed to the Arabian Sea, with Washington saying it was monitoring Iranian vessels suspected of carrying weapons to the rebels in violation of a UN embargo.
A coalition statement said the next step would aim to resume the political process in Yemen, delivering aid and "fighting terrorism" in the country, which is home to a deadly Al-Qaeda franchise.
Diplomatically, the coalition would seek "international cooperation" to prevent arms from reaching the rebels.
It would also "confront movements and military operations of Huthi militia and their allies... to prevent them from using the arms stolen from military camps or smuggled from abroad," it added.
- US 'preserving options' -
Speaking in Tehran, Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said the "establishment of a ceasefire and a stop to the killing of innocent and defenceless people is a step forward."
In remarks carried by state news agency IRNA, she said she hoped humanitarian aid would be sent soon and that "a situation for talks between Yemeni parties and groups for formation of a comprehensive government is resumed."
But amid reports of a nine-ship Iranian convoy in the area, the US Navy said it was sending in the USS Theodore Roosevelt escorted by guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said media reports suggesting the Americans were preparing to prevent the Iranian convoy from reaching Yemen if it was carrying arms were "a bit over-cranked".
"We don't know what the Iranian convoy of ships plans to do, but we are watching them," Warren said. "By having American sea power in the region, we preserve our options."
Located on key shipping routes and bordering oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Yemen was plunged into chaos last year when the Huthis seized Sanaa.
The Saudi defence ministry said the air strikes which began on March 26 had managed "to successfully remove threats to Saudi Arabia's security and that of neighbouring countries".
But in a stark reminder of the human toll of the campaign, the UN health agency said more than 900 people have been killed since the strikes were launched against rebels clashing with pro-government forces.
In his speech, Hadi thanked the coalition states, renewing accusations against Huthis who he said had brought in forces and military equipment from Iran.
He held the rebels "and their allies inside and outside (Yemen) are completely responsible for the latest developments which were a result of their futile actions."
He however urged all Yemeni counterparts to work to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2216 "which paves the way for positive and effective dialogue."
The resolution demands the Huthis pull back from all the territory they have seized, including from Sanaa, and that they return to peace talks.
Hadi said he had assigned newly appointed Vice President Khaled Bahah, who is also prime minister, and his government to respond to humanitarian needs in Yemen and urged world organisations "to cooperate with them to offer urgent aid."
The World Health Organisation said the violence had killed 944 people and wounded 3,487 as of April 17.
But the true numbers are likely higher, as many people are not making it to hospitals.
In Riyadh, a Western diplomat said he thought it was a "good time for the Saudis to get out of this," even though the political objectives had not been achieved.
"The Huthis are still there where they had been before," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified.