Prisoner swap deal bolsters hopes in Yemen talks
U.N. food agency plans to ramp up aid through Jan.
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.