UN says Yemen prisoner swap would help talks
AMMAN - A UN special envoy told warring Yemenis on Tuesday that rapid implementation of a prisoner swap deal would help advance efforts at a political settlement of a nearly four-year-old war.
The envoy, Martin Griffiths, said finalising a list of the thousands of prisoners should be completed by the end of three days of talks in Amman between teams from the Saudi-backed government and their Iranian-aligned Houthi adversaries.
The list is to be handed over to the world body and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
"It will lay the basis for the next step which will be to see that release happening," Griffiths told delegates before the start of the second round in Amman in less than a month.
Griffiths stressed how important the swap deal was to achieving progress in ending a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and left 15.9 million people facing severe hunger.
"Success in this regard is not only of huge importance for those who will be released.. but also for the broader political process in which we have hopes the parties will together resolve the issues that divide them and return Yemen to peace."
As he spoke, the new head of the UN mission tasked with overseeing a fragile ceasefire deal in Yemen, Danish Major General Michael Anker Lollesgaard, arrived in the port city of Hodeidah.
Implementation of the deal, reached in Sweden in December, has stalled as the two sides cannot agree on who will control the port - a lifeline for millions of Yemenis - and the city after a planned redeployment of their forces.
The prisoner swap was one of the least contentious confidence-building measures at the peace talks in Sweden.
The Amman prisoner negotiations will verify names of about 15,000 prisoners exchanged by both sides, some of whom include Saudis and other nationals fighting on the government side.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose agency would oversee the operation, said implementing the deal could take weeks and involve the repatriation of third country nationals.
"Trust doesn't come from one day to another. It is a difficult process and we know this is work in progress," ICRC President Peter Maurer said at the start of the Amman talks.
The conflict, widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been bogged down in a military stalemate for years.
A Sunni Muslim Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.
The Houthis control most urban centers in the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation while Hadi's government controls the southern port of Aden and a string of coastal towns.
New mission head
Meanwhle, retired Danish general Michael Lollesgaard arrived in Sanaa to head the UN observer mission in Yemen and replace his predecessor whose ties with the rebels were reportedly strained.
Lollesgaard replaces Patrick Cammaert, the Dutch general who had been tapped a little over a month ago to lead the mission deployed in the lifeline Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.
The new mission head made no comments upon his arrival in Sanaa and it was not clear when exactly he would begin his mission in Hodeidah.
He will oversee a team of 75 unarmed observers to monitor a fragile ceasefire deal agreed in December between the Huthis and the Yemeni government at UN-brokered talks in Sweden.
Diplomats say relations have been strained between Cammaert and the Iran-linked Huthi rebels battling the Saudi-backed government, and with the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths.
Some Huthis have accused him of running his own agenda, a claim disputed by the United Nations which said his only mission was to improve the lives of the embattled Yemeni people.
On January 17, his convoy came under fire but he and his team escaped unhurt. The UN said the source of the shooting was unknown.
Hodeidah port is the entry point for the bulk of Yemen's supplies of imported goods and humanitarian aid, providing a lifeline to millions on the brink of starvation.
The Yemen conflict has triggered what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with millions of people at risk of starvation.
The World Health Organization has put the death toll since 2015 at about 10,000 people but rights groups say that figure could be five times higher.