Pris­oner swap bol­sters progress hopes in Ye­men

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY 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 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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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