Yemen's warring sides meet face-to-face at Sweden peace talks

Government delegates say the opposing sides are holding direct negotiations for the first time in two years.

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    Rimbo, Sweden - Yemen's warring sides are holding face-to-face discussions over a planned prisoner swap, one of several confidence-building measures aimed at ending more than three years of war that has ravaged the impoverished country.

    Since talks began last week, United Nations officials have been shuttling between delegations from President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government and the Houthi rebels.

    But on Sunday, officials from the Yemeni government said despite an impasse over the port of Hodeidah, a breakthrough over the release of prisoners was about to be reached following the direct talks.

    WATCH: Differences slow down Sweden peace talks to end Yemen war (2:13)

    "This is the first face-to-face meeting between the two committees [government and Houthis] and they will now be discussing the technicalities of releasing prisoners and detainees," Hamza al-Kamali, a member of the Yemeni government delegation, told Al Jazeera.

    Mohammed Askar, Yemen's minister for human rights, told Al Jazeera, "The agreement included all detainees who were captured by the Houthis since the war erupted."

    One source told Al Jazeera as many as 6,000 prisoners could be exchanged in the coming months.

    A second source told Al Jazeera the Houthis were expected to release several high-ranking commanders within the Yemeni army, including the former minister of defence, General Mahmoud Al Subaihi, and relatives of President Hadi. 

    Mohammed al-Amiri, a member of the delegation and an adviser to the president, said the sides were still discussing "operational mechanisms that would determine the date and place of the release".

    "Since the other side is continuing with arrests and kidnapping, the lists we submitted need to be updated continuously," he added.

    Stumbling blocks remain

    While the opposing sides appeared to be edging closer to securing a deal on prisoners, the fate of Sanaa international airport and Hodeidah port reached a stumbling block on Saturday.

    The Yemeni government insisted Aden would be home to the country's main airport and the facility in Sanaa would only operate domestic flights.

    Sanaa airport has been under Houthi control since 2014 and has been repeatedly bombed by the coalition, with planes, the runway and the main terminal building suffering severe damage.

    The Yemeni government says it is prepared to operate flights in and out of Sanaa, but only if the planes are inspected in Aden or Seiyoun airport, which are under the control of a Saudi-UAE coalition at war with the rebels.

    The Houthis have rejected the idea with Mohammad Abdul Salam, head of the Houthi delegation, telling Al Jazeera the airport must be "opened in accordance with the international standards".

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    There also appeared to be an apparent stalemate concerning the city of Hodeidah.

    Hodeidah port is a lifeline for humanitarian supplies entering Yemen, but restrictions by the Saudi-UAE coalition on commercial goods has exacerbated the war-torn country's crisis, with 22 million Yemenis needing assistance.

    Yemen's government, which claims its forces are only 3km from the port, is demanding the Houthis relinquish complete control and withdraw from the city.

    The Houthis have said they are prepared to hand over the port to the UN, but only if the Saudi-UAE coalition stops its air raids.

    Kamali, from the Yemeni government delegation, said despite the sides being at apparent loggerheads, talks on Sunday would also focus on easing the siege in Taiz.

    More than 200,000 civilians have been caught up by fighting in Taiz, a city some 200km south of the capital, Sanaa, that has become one of the major front lines in the battle for control of Yemen.

    Al Jazeera reported last month that a number of armed groups linked to al-Qaeda have taken advantage of the security vacuum in the city.

    "If we're able to achieve something positive today, we will also be looking at when to hold the next round of negotiations," Kamali added.

    There is a powerful faction within the US establishment that is dead set on starting a war with Iran, and they understand that continuing to back the coalition in Yemen is one way to make that happen

    Will Picard, Executive Director, Yemen Peace Project

    'Full of positive news'

    Yemen's opposing sides have been meeting in the Swedish town of Rimbo, some 60km north of the capital Stockholm, since Thursday for talks aimed at discussing ways to end the fighting that has killed an estimated 56,000 people.

    The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said the talks are not intended to reach a political solution to the conflict, but to introduce a set of confidence-building measures that could pave the way for more comprehensive peace talks.

    Abdulaziz Jabari, a senior adviser to President Hadi, said after four days of consultations he expected the next two days to be "full of positive news".

    A UN official later told Al Jazeera the second round of talks has been agreed to in principle to be held in January.

    International pressure to end the war has mounted since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a leading critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in October by Saudi nationals in their consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

    Western powers have expressed anger over the killing and a group of bipartisan senators in the United States have been urging the Congress to limit Washington's support for the war.

    However, earlier on Sunday, Timothy Lenderking, the US deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs, said Washington opposed discontinuing support to the Saudi-led alliance.

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    "Support for the coalition is necessary. It sends a wrong message if we discontinue our support," he said at a conference in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi. 

    Will Picard, executive director at the Yemen Peace Project, said the Trump administration was using "the Iranian threat to scare Congress, and to some extent the American public, into supporting this intervention".

    "The US administration has not blindly bought into Riyadh's narrative about an Iranian threat in Yemen; rather, it helped to create this narrative," he said.

    "There is a powerful faction within the US establishment that is dead set on starting a war with Iran, and they understand that continuing to back the coalition in Yemen is one way to make that happen."

    Yemen has been wracked by a multi-sided conflict since 2014 involving local, regional and international actors.

    The Houthis, a group of Zaydi Shia Muslims who ruled a kingdom in northern Yemen for nearly 1,000 years, exploited widespread anger against Hadi in 2014 and toppled his government in early 2015, triggering one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

    A coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened on March 26, 2015 and has carried out more than 18,000 air raids since, with weddings, medical facilities and funerals not spared from the bombardment.

    The talks in Sweden have come at a critical time as about 20 million Yemenis, more than two-thirds of the country, are going hungry and in urgent need of food assistance.

    According to recent estimates, as many as 85,000 children may have died from hunger since the beginning of the war.

     

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News