Prisoner Swap Agreement Adds Momentum to Yemen Peace Efforts

(Bloomberg) -- Agreements between Houthi rebels and Yemen’s Saudi Arabia-backed government on a prisoner swap and medical treatment have added momentum to planned talks in Sweden on ending nearly four years of devastating war.

The Houthis said late Monday that they had signed an agreement with the Yemeni government on a prisoner exchange, rebel Al Masirah TV reported. Yemen Foreign Minister Khaled Al Yamani confirmed the deal and said implementation would be discussed in Sweden.

Fifty wounded rebels, meanwhile, were flown from Yemen’s Sana’a airport to neighboring Oman on a United Nations plane to receive medical treatment in Muscat, according to Saba news agency, which is under Houthi control. The evacuation was arranged by UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, who is working to reconvene peace talks among the warring parties, perhaps as early as this week.

Griffiths has been seeking such confidence-building measures as part of his effort to end the conflict, a proxy battle for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Houthis’ patron, Iran.

Long Odds

“It’s encouraging that the airlift has happened and that the Houthi delegation looks set to leave Sana’a, but it’s important to remember the odds are stacked towards the worst case scenario and against a peaceful resolution in the near term,” said Peter Salisbury, a senior fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East & North Africa Program. “The pressure and hard work that got us here needs to be maintained.”

A Saudi-led military coalition including the United Arab Emirates entered the fighting in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The U.A.E.’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, wrote on Twitter that the evacuation “demonstrates the Yemeni Government & the Arab Coalition’s support for peace.”

No date has been set for the talks, though there have been reports they could start as early as Wednesday. The Houthi delegation flew to Sweden on Tuesday afternoon, rebel TV reported.

The rebels boycotted a previous effort to convene the warring parties in Geneva in September.

Humanitarian Disaster

The war has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, with thousands of civilians killed, and displacement, hunger and sickness rampant. Three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people need aid to stave off hunger and disease, and half of them require it urgently to survive, according to the UN.

But it took the brazen killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October to refocus attention on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Some U.S. lawmakers are calling to end their country’s support for the Saudi-led coalition.

A Senate vote meant to curtail the U.S.’s role in the war may not happen until Monday because of the funeral of former President George H. W. Bush, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said.

Some legislators have been also calling for the suspension of military sales to Saudi Arabia after the murder.

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