Hopeful start to Yemen talks

STOCKHOLM: Yemen’s warring sides agreed to free thousands of prisoners on Thursday, in what a UN mediator called a hopeful start to the first peace talks in years to end a war that has pushed millions of people on the verge of starvation.
UN mediator Martin Griffiths told a news conference in a renovated castle outside Stockholm that just getting the warring sides to the table was an important milestone.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people and spawned what the United Nations calls the world’s direst humanitarian crisis, since Arab coalition intervened in 2015 to restore the government.
No talks have been held since 2016, and the last attempt in Geneva in September failed when the Ansar Allah did not attend.
Griffiths said the prisoner swap agreed at the start of the talks would reunite thousands of families. The International Committee of the Red Cross said at least 5,000 would be freed.
The war has been stalemated for years, threatening supply lines to feed nearly 30 million inhabitants.
The Ansar Allah control the capital Sanaa and most populated areas, while the government based in the southern city of Aden has struggled to advance. Humanitarian suffering has added to pressure on the parties to end the conflict.
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 Ansar Allah and a focus of the war after the coalition launched a campaign to capture it this year.
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 Ansar Allah 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.
The head of the Ansar Allah’s Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al Houthi, said in a Twitter post that if no deal is reached to re-open the airport, the movement could close it on the ground to all traffic including UN flights. — Reuters