Yemen’s warring sides have begun fresh United Nations-backed negotiations in Jordan on a prisoner exchange, according to officials.
Sunday’s meeting in Amman between the Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels, who have been at war for almost six years, came days after the United States designated the rebel group as a foreign “terrorist” organisation, a move the UN had warned could undermine peace efforts and worsen Yemen’s already dire humanitarian crisis.
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It also came more than three months after the two sides completed the war’s largest exchange.
A UN-chartered plane carried four Houthi officials from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, to Amman on Saturday. The government also sent four representatives, according to Mohammad Fadayel, the head of the government’s prisoners’ committee.
The talks reportedly aim to free 300 prisoners, including high-ranking officials such as the brother of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose internationally recognised government was removed by the Houthis in late 2014.
In a statement on Sunday, UN special envoy Martin Griffiths urged the gathering in Amman to prioritise “the immediate and unconditional release of all sick, wounded, elderly and children detainees as well as all arbitrarily detained civilians, including women”.
The talks in Amman are facilitated by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Griffiths’ office said.
They are part of confidence-building measures aimed at restarting peace negotiations last held in Sweden in December 2018, when the two parties agreed to exchange 15,000 detainees. Some 1,000 prisoners were exchanged last year.
The war in Yemen began in 2014 after the Houthis seized much of the country and overran Sanaa.
The conflict worsened in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with US backing, assembled a military coalition to try to restore Hadi’s government.
Tens of thousands have been killed and the UN has said the conflict caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In November, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Yemen was in “imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades”.
The conflict Iran has been in a military deadlock for years, but the Houthis still control much of Yemen.
The administration of new US President Joe Biden said on Friday it has initiated a review of the rebels’ designation, which went into effect on January 19, on the eve of Donald Trump’s departure from the White House.
Dozens of civil society groups have urged Biden to overturn the decision, saying the designation would “prevent the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people”.
It is also expected to scare away outside actors from carrying out many transactions with Houthi authorities, including bank transfers and buying food and fuel.