Prisoner swap bolsters progress hopes in Yemen
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 destabilized the region and 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 brutal three-year-old conflict pits the internationally recognized government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, against ethnic Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who took the capital of Sanaa in 2014. The Saudis intervened the following year.
U.S. logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi campaign has recently come in for scrutiny and sharp criticism following the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Riyadh in early October.
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. 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, Mr. 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 longrange 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.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the talks and urged the parties to make progress on the agenda outlined by Mr. Griffiths, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.
As the talks opened, fighting raged in the central Yemeni 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.
Men ride through streets wrecked by fighting in Taiz, Yemen. Envoys from Yemen’s warring parties are headed to Sweden for peace talks to stop the war.