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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Yemen’s warring parties meet for first direct talks since 2016

Hodeidah remains the main sticking point in negotiations, UN official says

Othman Hussein Faid Mujali, Yemen's Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, speaks to media during the peace talks on Yemen. TT News Agency via REUTERS  
Othman Hussein Faid Mujali, Yemen's Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, speaks to media during the peace talks on Yemen. TT News Agency via REUTERS  

Representatives from Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised government held direct talks for the first time in Sweden on Sunday in what is seen as another positive step towards finding peace.

The UN-led negotiations in the Swedish village of Rimbo have so far resulted in an agreement of a prisoner swap, but the fate of Hodeidah and its port, a valuable front line, has proven to be a sticking point in the consultations, according to a UN official.

"Hodeidah has proven to be the most difficult," the UN source said, adding that progress on control of the port was crucial to ending the war.

The government has demanded a complete Houthi withdrawal from the city, which the rebels have repeatedly rejected.

UN Envoy Martin Griffiths and his team have shuttled between representatives of the rebels and the government during the previous three days talks.

Sunday’s face-to-face talks focused on a prisoner swap deal, a member of the government delegation told The National on the sidelines of the talks. He said the head of the government's committee for prisoner swaps and the head the rebel's committee on the same issue met to discuss the deal.

All members of both committees were supposed to be part of the meeting, but the government objected to the larger meeting because the Houthi representative heading the prisoner swap file was not an official delegate.

“We are very keen as the government of Yemen to have real progress on this issue, but there was a technical problem this morning because the head of the Houthi committee on prisoner exchange is not part of the rebel delegation, and we have insisted that we would consult only with official Houthi delegates,” said Ali Ashaal, a member of the government delegation, told The National.

Because of the objection, the meeting was limited to only the two men because it was the only way to move forward, Mr Ashaal said.

The government delegate said they will soon issue a list of people it wants released from Houthi prisons. He said that the deal will be implemented within the next few days, expressing hopes that some high-ranking military and political officials may be released soon as a gesture of "good will."

As per the swap agreement, Houthis are expected in the coming days to release three high ranking commanders with the Yemeni army, including Gen Mahmood Al Soubaihi, the former minister of defence and Maj Gen Naser Mansour Hadi, Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi’s brother, a Yemeni government official told The National.

Houthis will also release the leader of Yemen's Islamist Al Islah party, Mohammed Qahtan, the official said.

The commanders and Mr Qahtan were all kidnapped by rebels in 2015.

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Abdullah Mahmood Al Soubaihi, the younger son of the former defence minister, told The National that some officials in the government had told his family that his father was going to be released soon as part of the swap, but he has yet to receive official confirmation from the government or the coalition.

Members of the Saudi-led coalition, including Saudi troops who were captured during battles on the Saudi-Yemeni border, will also be released as part of the agreement.

"The prisoner swap agreement which was signed in the last few days includes all the detainees who were captured by the Houthi militia since the war erupted in March 2015," Mohammed Askar the minister of Human Rights in the Yemeni government told the National.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdelsalam said his delegation is open to more talks with the government if progress is made during the coming days.

"If we leave these consultations having made progress - progress in building confidence and finding a framework - we can hold a new round of talks" in the coming months, Mr Abdelsalam told reporters.

The UN envoy has outlined three initial objectives for talks in Sweden: securing confidence-building measures including a prisoner swap; the reopening of the airport in the capital, Sanaa; and securing UN administration of the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah, through which almost 80 per cent of international aid enters the country.

The consultations are expected to last until December 14, according to the government delegate, with both sides under pressure to agree on confidence-building measures that will allow formal peace negotiations to resume.

The government has set up six committees to address issues regarding the proposed prisoner exchange, the port of Hodeidah, Sanaa airport, the economy, lifting the siege of Taez, and the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Updated: December 9, 2018 10:26 PM

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