Pris­oner swap deal brings hope

Yemen’s move marks an im­por­tant step to­ward build­ing con­fi­dence be­tween two war­ring sides

The Peterborough Examiner - - Canada & World - DAVID KEY­TON AND BRIAN RO­HAN

RIMBO, SWE­DEN — Yemen’s war­ring sides agreed to a broad pris­oner swap Thurs­day, sit­ting down in the same room to­gether for the first time in years at U.N.-spon­sored peace talks in Swe­den aimed at halt­ing a cat­a­strophic war that has brought the coun­try to the brink of famine.

Hopes were high that the talks wouldn’t de­te­ri­o­rate into fur­ther vi­o­lence as in the past, and that the pris­oner ex­change would be an im­por­tant first step to­ward build­ing con­fi­dence be­tween highly dis­trust­ful ad­ver­saries.

The three-year-old con­flict pits the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment, which is backed by a U.S.-spon­sored Saudi-led coali­tion, against Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis, who took the cap­i­tal of Sanaa in 2014. The Saudis in­ter­vened the fol­low­ing year.

U.N. en­voy Mar­tin Grif­fiths said the two sides have sig­nalled they are se­ri­ous about de-es­ca­lat­ing the fight­ing through calls they’ve made in re­cent weeks, and urged them to work to fur­ther re­duce the vi­o­lence in the Arab world’s poor­est na­tion, which is a scene of mas­sive civil­ian suf­fer­ing.

“I’m also pleased to an­nounce the sign­ing of an agree­ment on the ex­change of pris­on­ers, de­tainees, the miss­ing, the forcibly de­tained and in­di­vid­u­als placed un­der house ar­rest,” Grif­fiths said from the venue. “It will al­low thou­sands of fam­i­lies to be re­united, and it is the prod­uct of very ef­fec­tive, ac­tive work from both del­e­ga­tions.”

The in­ter­na­tional Red Cross said it would over­see the pris­oner ex­change, which is ex­pected to take weeks.

The talks in the Swedish town of Rimbo, north of Stock­holm, aim to set up “a frame­work for ne­go­ti­a­tions” on a fu­ture peace agree­ment, Grif­fiths said, call­ing the com­ing days a mile­stone none­the­less and urg­ing the par­ties “to work in good faith ... to de­liver a mes­sage of peace.”

The fight­ing in Yemen has gen­er­ated the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and claimed at least 10,000 lives, with ex­perts es­ti­mat­ing a much higher toll.

The Saudi-led group has con­ducted thou­sands of airstrikes, hit­ting schools, hos­pi­tals and wed­ding par­ties in what crit­ics call reck­less bom­bard­ment. The Houthis have, for their part, fired long-range mis­siles into Saudi Ara­bia and tar­geted ves­sels in the Red Sea. Both sides stand ac­cused of war crimes.

U.N. of­fi­cials, how­ever, have sought to down­play ex­pec­ta­tions from the talks, say­ing they don’t fore­see rapid progress to­ward a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, but hope for at least mi­nor steps that would help to ad­dress Yemen’s wors­en­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and pre­pare a frame­work for fur­ther ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Some Ye­meni voices on both sides fired off last-minute de­mands, snip­ing com­men­tary and fin­ger-point­ing, while com­bat con­tin­ued on the ground in some ar­eas.

Fight­ing raged in the cen­tral city of Taiz, long a con­tested bat­tle­ground, where res­i­dents were hope­ful yet highly skep­ti­cal they had much to look for­ward to amid the poverty.

“We here in Taiz have been three years without salaries, and still we are here in the street, look­ing for an in­come,” said lo­cal Faisal al-Asali from a street cafe.

Grif­fiths said the talks would ad­dress sev­eral main points men­tioned by both sides: broader pris­oner ex­changes, the re­lease of funds to the cen­tral bank to pay civil ser­vants in rebel-con­trolled ter­ri­tory, a pos­si­ble han­dover of the port at Hodeida to the U.N., and rebel calls to lift the coali­tion’s block­ade of Sanaa air­port to com­mer­cial traf­fic.

“I be­lieve that we can also here in the com­ing days find so­lu­tions on spe­cific is­sues that will im­prove co-oper­a­tion and re­duce suf­fer­ing,” he said.

Both the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels say they are striv­ing for peace.

The Houthi del­e­ga­tion ar­rived in Stock­holm late Tues­day, ac­com­pa­nied by Grif­fiths.


The in­ter­na­tional Red Cross will over­see the pris­oner ex­change in Yemen, which “will al­low thou­sands of fam­i­lies to be re­united.” It is “the prod­uct of very ef­fec­tive, ac­tive work from both del­e­ga­tions.”

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