RIMBO, Sweden: Yemen’s government and rival militia announced Tuesday plans for a mass prisoner swap, exchanging some 15,000 names, as UN-brokered talks on ending the country’s war entered their seventh day.
Nearly four years into a war that has pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of mass starvation, the Saudi-backed government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Houthi militia, linked to Iran, began talks Thursday in the rural town of Rimbo in Sweden. The talks are expected to last a week.
The Houthi militia announced that the names of a total of 15,000 detainees and prisoners had been exchanged. A source in the government delegation said their side had released the names of 8,200 detainees but declined to comment on the combined total.
The militia and government have agreed to a 45-day deadline for the exchange, sources in both delegations said.
Prisoners will be flown out through two airports: government-held Seyoun, in central Yemen, and the rebel-held capital Sanaa, home to an international airport that has been largely shut down for three years.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has confirmed it will oversee the exchange.
The Sweden talks are the first meeting between the two parties in the Yemen conflict, which pits the Iran-backed Houthis against the Hadi government, allied with a regional military coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
Brokered by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths earlier this month, the prisoner swap was one of the main points -- and the least contentious -- at this week’s talks.
Griffiths told reporters on Monday the prisoner swap would be “very, very considerable in terms of the numbers that we hope to get released within a few weeks”.
The prisoner exchange was the only issue the rival delegations were confirmed to have met on face-to-face.
Among the other issues under discussion are potential humanitarian corridors, the reopening of the defunct Sanaa international airport, and Hodeidah, the Houthi-held city at the heart of an ongoing government offensive.
The UN said on Monday it was seeking $4 billion to provide humanitarian aid to some 20 million Yemenis next year — or about 70 percent of the war-stricken country’s population.
Each year, the world body needs an additional billion dollars, UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said.
A donors’ conference backed by Sweden, Switzerland and the UN is set to take place on Feb. 26 in Geneva.
“We didn’t have a cessation of hostilities,” although the violence appears to have decreased, added Lowcock, who recently traveled to the country, expressing hope for a positive outcome to peace negotiations taking place in Sweden between the parties under UN auspices.
He denounced obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian aid, noting that Yemen also needs help to bring its economy back from the brink.
“Hodeidah port is crucial” for humanitarian aid, Lowcock said, referring to the flashpoint city at the heart of negotiations in Sweden. The Yemeni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and its military allies, has been battling the Iran-backed Houthi rebels for control of Yemen for nearly four years, spawning what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.