Pris­oner swap deal bol­sters hopes in Ye­men talks

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

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 a first step to­ward build­ing con­fi­dence be­tween highly dis­trust­ful ad­ver­saries.

The 3-year-old con­flict pits the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment, which is backed by the Arab coali­tion, against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who took the cap­i­tal of Sanaa in 2014. The coali­tion in­ter­vened the fol­low­ing year.

U.N. en­voy Mar­tin Grif­fiths said the two sides have sig­naled 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, 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 prod­uct of very ef­fec­tive, ac­tive work from both del­e­ga­tions.”

The in­ter­na­tional Red Cross said it would over­see the pris­oner swap, 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. 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.

U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res wel­comed the talks and urged the par­ties to make progress on the agenda out­lined by Grif­fiths, U.N. spokesman Stephane Du­jar­ric said.

The U.N. chief ap­pealed to the war­ring par­ties “to con­tinue the deesca­la­tion of [the key port city of] Hodeida and ex­plore other mea­sures to mit­i­gate the life-threat­en­ing eco­nomic and hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion,” Du­jar­ric added.

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,” lo­cal Faisal al-Asali said 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 co­op­er­a­tion and re­duce suf­fer­ing,” he said.

Both the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment, which is backed by the U.S.-spon­sored Arab coali­tion, and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels say they are striv­ing for peace.

The Houthi del­e­ga­tion ar­rived in Stock­holm late Tues­day, ac­com­pa­nied by Grif­fiths. The gov­ern­ment del­e­ga­tion and the head of the rebel del­e­ga­tion trav­elled to Swe­den Wed­nes­day.

Mean­while, the U.N. food agency said Thurs­day it is plan­ning to rapidly scale up food distri­bu­tion to help an­other 4 mil­lion peo­ple in Ye­men over the next two months, more than a 50-per­cent in­crease in the num­ber reached now – if ac­cess can be main­tained in the war-stricken coun­try.

World Food Pro­gram spokesman Herve Ver­hoosel said the “am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing” fi­nal­izes plans in the works in re­cent months to reach 12 mil­lion peo­ple with food and nu­tri­tional sup­ple­ments through Jan­uary, up from be­tween 7 mil­lion to 8 mil­lion now.

The tar­get pop­u­la­tion in­cludes some 3 mil­lion women and chil­dren who need spe­cial sup­port to pre­vent mal­nu­tri­tion.

Swe­den’s for­eign min­is­ter who opened the talks, Mar­got Wall­strom, wished the Ye­men ad­ver­saries strength to find “com­pro­mise and courage” as they em­bark on the dif­fi­cult task ahead.

“Now it is up to you, the Yem­ini par­ties,” she said. “You have the com­mand of your fu­ture.” –

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