Yemen's warring factions agree to prisoner exchange ahead of Sweden meeting
Rebel Houthi delegation on way to Stockholm for peace talks
A Houthi delegation, escorted by the UN's envoy to Yemen, is en route to Sweden to attend peace talks with the Yemeni government.
The rebel party and Martin Griffiths departed the capital Sanaa on Tuesday afternoon in a Kuwaiti chartered plane accompanied by the Kuwait ambassador to Yemen.
Their departure indicates that this round of peace talks is already off to a better start than the previous summit planned in Geneva in September, which collapsed after the Houthi delegation refused to leave Sanaa.
That failure to attend prompted suspicion from the Yemeni government that the rebels were attempting to stall for time ahead of the Arab coalition's expected offensive to recapture the rebel-held port city of Hodeidah.
This time around, the two sides face mounting pressure by the US, UN and the UK to pursue a negotiated end to the conflict as the humanitarian situation worsens.
On Monday, a plane carrying some 50 wounded Houthi rebels landed in Oman where they will receive treatment, according to the United Nations.
The Arab Coalition supported the move to relocate the wounded fighters, saying that it would be among several if the confidence-building measures the UN envoy to Yemen says are necessary.
“Evacuating wounded Houthi fighters from Sana once again demonstrates the Yemeni Government and the Arab Coalition’s support for peace. We believe Sweden offers a critical opportunity to successfully engage in a political solution for Yemen,” said UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash.
As part of the series of confidence building measures, Yemen's government and the Houthi rebels have agreed to exchange thousands of prisoners before planned peace talks in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
A Yemeni government source told The National that coalition forces fighting in the north of Yemeni would be among those agreed upon in the prisoner exchange. Saudi Arabia has made no comment on whether those captured by the Houthis were Saudi military.
The prisoner exchange, struck during a visit by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, will include between 1,500 and 2,000 members of the pro-government forces and between 1,000 and 1,500 rebels, government official Hadi Haig told AFP.
Peace talks in Sweden between the Yemeni government, the Arab Coalition and the Houthi rebels offer a “critical opportunity” to engage in a political solution to the war in the Arab world’s poorest country, according to the Dr Gargash.
He said the talks should provide a sustainable solution to the ongoing crisis in Yemen.
“A sustainable Yemeni led political solution offers the best chance to ending the current crisis. A stable state, important for the region, cannot coexist with unlawful militias. UNSCR 2216 offers a workable road map,” said Dr Gargash.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has provided more than two million people in the country with aid, said it "welcomes the agreement between Yemeni parties for the release, transfer and repatriation of conflict-related detainees."
Other elements within Yemen remain skeptical that the talks will produce results. Colonel Wadhah Al Dubaish, an officers in the Al Amalikah forces fighting along the west coast, said he believed the Houthis were trying to exploit the efforts of the UN and the international community.
"The Houthis agreed on swapping the prisoners because they have thousands of prisoners in the hands of the pro-government forces. They easily agreed, but when the political negotiations begin, you will see how stubborn they will become," Col Al Dubaish predicted.
"I don't expect that much of the coming negotiations, I believe that the Houthi group is a sectarian faction based on violence and it would never have any desire for peace and stability," he added.
But analysts suggest that pursuing confidence-building measures could be an important step on the road to peace. Fatima Abo Alasrar, a senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation, said issues such as the economic situation, the opening of Sanaa airport, and the prisoners exchange are positive preliminary areas for talks to focus on.
The odds of success may be increased because Mr Griffiths has better managed expectations this time, she said. “Geneva failed because the Houthi delegation did not attend, as they had requirements that the UN Envoy did not prepare for. This time, the UN Envoy was prepared and secured the transfer of 50 injured Houthis into Oman for treatment in order to remove all the Houthis' excuses that they cited for not attending Geneva.”
Regional leaders have their support behind the Sweden talks. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made his first public comments on Yemen on Monday when he urged both sides to “restore peace and prosperity in the country.”
“I refer to all the parties fighting on political and the devastating war scenes, is a loser in war as war brings nothing but destruction, loss, devastation, hatred and riots,” he said.
Land-locked Ethiopia hosts thousands of Yemenis who have fled the conflict. A short boat ride takes refugees across the Bab Al Mandeb strait to Djibouti, where many travel on to Ethiopia, which has maintained an open-door policy to Yemen's displaced.
On Tuesday, the United Nations appealed for $4 billion to address Yemen's humanitarian crisis, its largest aid operation out of 21 worldwide crises for which it requested a total of $21.9 billion.
The appeal to donor countries does not include the funding requirements for Syria, which are expected to bring the total up to $25 billion, it said.
With Yemen on the brink of an historic famine, pressure is on the factions in Sweden to make progress, but Ms Abo Alasrar issued a note of caution.
“I think we should temper our expectations on what the Sweden peace consultations could achieve," she said. "In the former peace talks in Kuwait, for example, months of dialogue and consultations resulted in nothing as the Houthis backed out from signing the agreement at the last minute."