RIMBO: Yemen’s warring sides agreed to a broad prisoner swap on Thursday, sitting down in the same room together for the first time in years at UN-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 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.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths said the two sides have signalled 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.
“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 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, 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. The three-year-old conflict pits the internationally recognised government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, against Shia rebels, known as Houthis, who took the capital, Sanaa, in 2014.
UN officials have sought to downplay expectations from the talks, saying they don’t foresee rapid progress towards 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.
Griffiths said the talks would address several main points mentioned by both sides: broader prisoner exchanges, the release of funds to the central bank to pay civil servants in rebel-controlled territory, a possible handover of the port at Hodeida to the UN, and rebel calls to lift the coalition’s blockade of Sanaa airport to commercial traffic.
Meanwhile, the UN food agency said Thursday it is planning to rapidly scale up food distribution to help another four million people in Yemen over the next two months, more than a 50-per-cent increase in the number reached now if access can be maintained in the poor, war-stricken country.
Sweden’s foreign minister who opened the talks, Margot Wallstrom, wished the Yemen adversaries strength to find “compromise and courage” as they embark on the difficult task ahead. “Now it is up to you, the Yemini parties,” she said. “You have the command of your future.”
Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2018