Pris­oner swap deal bol­sters hopes in Ye­men talks

U.N. food agency plans to ramp up aid through Jan.

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD 2 -

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 as in the past, and that the pris­oner ex­change would be an im­por­tant first step to­ward build­ing con­fi­dence be­tween highly dis­trust­ful ad­ver­saries.

The 3-year-old con­flict pits the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment, which is backed by a Saudiled 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 had sig­naled they are se­ri­ous about de-es­ca­lat­ing the fight­ing and urged them to work to fur­ther re­duce the vi­o­lence in the Arab world’s poor­est na­tion, the 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 a 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, said Grif­fiths, call­ing the com­ing days a mile­stone nonethe­less and urg­ing the par­ties “to work in good faith ... to de­liver a mes­sage of peace.”

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 the 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 in New York.

Some Ye­meni voices on both sides fired off last­minute de­mands, snip­ing com­men­tary and fin­ger­point­ing, while com­bat con­tin­ued on the ground in some ar­eas.

Mean­while, the U.N. food agency said Thurs­day that it was plan­ning to rapidly scale up 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 a war zone.

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 and 8 mil­lion now.


A mal­nour­ished 7-month-old boy was given for­mula by his mother at a hos­pi­tal in Aden, Ye­men, on Feb. 13. War has brought the na­tion to the brink of famine, and the World Food Pro­gram is plan­ning to rapidly in­crease as­sis­tance.


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