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Hopeful Start with Agreement over Prisoners Swap

Negotiating sides in Sweden have all agreed to swap thousands of prisoners on Thursday, in what a UN mediator called a hopeful start to the first peace talks in years to end the war.

Martin Griffiths, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen has told a news conference in a renovated castle outside Stockholm that just getting the both sides to the table was an important milestone because no talks have been held since 2016, and the last attempt in Geneva in September failed when the Houthis did not attend.

The UN official said the prisoner swap agreed at the start of the talks would reunite thousands of families.

Foreign Minister Khaled Al Yamani, who heads the Saudi-backed government’s delegation to the UN-sponsored talks, said his team would follow through with a planned prisoner swap with the Houthi rebels — but refused to compromise on the flashpoint city of Hodeida.

“The Houthi militia must withdraw from the city of Hodeida and its port and hand it over to the legitimate government, and specifically internal security forces,” Yamani said.

The war has been stalemated for years, threatening supply lines to feed nearly 30 million inhabitants.

Diplomats are expected to shuttle between the warring parties to discuss other confidence-building steps and the formation of a transitional governing body, a UN source said.

The Swedish hosts called for constructive talks to end what Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom called a “catastrophe.” Griffiths, flanked by the two delegations, told them not to waiver.

Griffiths wants a deal on reopening Sanaa airport, shoring up the central bank and securing a truce in Hodeidah, the country’s main port, held by the Houthis and a focus of the war after the coalition launched a campaign to capture it this year.

This could lead to a wider ceasefire to halt coalition air strikes, and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

A UN source said that the two sides were still far from agreement on the three issues, especially on who should manage Hodeidah port and whether the Houthis should entirely quit the city. “Hodeidah is very complex,” the source said.

The United Nations is trying to avert a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, the entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial goods and aid. Both sides have reinforced positions in the Red Sea city in sporadic battles after a de-escalation last month.

The other main route in and out of Houthi territory is the Sanaa airport, but access is restricted by the Saudi-led coalition which controls the air space.

A survey of food security in Yemen has found more than 15 million people are in a “crisis” or “emergency” situation and that number could hit 20 million without sustained food aid, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said in a statement on Thursday.

The survey, carried out by Yemeni and international experts in October according to an international system for classifying food crises, also found about 65,000 in a food “catastrophe” or near famine levels, mostly in conflict zones. That number that could rise to 237,000 if aid does not get through, the WFP said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday it was ready to play a role in the Yemeni prisoner swap and voiced hope that the deal between the warring sides would build confidence for a political solution to end the war.

“The ICRC has been asked to play its role as a neutral intermediary and provide technical support…it will be of utmost importance to be able to certify the will of each detainee to be part of the process,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

Carboni, speaking earlier to reporters, said that the estimated number of Yemeni detainees “varies from 5,000 to 8,000.”

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