CAIRO (AP) — Yemen’s warring sides on Friday began long-awaited U.N.-brokered peace consultations in Switzerland on the exchange of prisoners, part of a deal aimed at ending a conflict that has killed thousands and set off the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Delegates from Yemen’s internationally recognized government, supported by a Saudi-led military coalition, sat down in Geneva with their rivals, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, for talks co-chaired by the Red Cross, according to Martin Griffiths, the U.N. envoy to Yemen.
Griffiths urged the parties to “release detainees swiftly” and “bring relief to thousands of Yemeni families.”
A deal to trade 15,000 prisoners was considered a breakthrough during 2018 peace talks in Sweden. The negotiations produced a sequence of confidence-building measures, including a cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeida. But ongoing military offensives across the country and deep-seated mutual distrust has repeatedly delayed the exchange.
Occasional releases of dozens of prisoners over the past two years have served as gestures of good faith, stoking hopes the factions would implement what the U.N. has described as the war’s “first official large-scale” exchange. The two sides committed earlier this year to swap over 1,400 detainees.
Lately, as the coronavirus pandemic slammed Yemen's devastated health system, peace talks have drawn more concerted international focus. However, fighting continues to rage on the ground as the rebels push into the oil-rich government stronghold of Marib.
Yara Khawaja, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen, said she welcomed the negotiations “for the sake of the families waiting for loved ones to return home.”
“It’s in the hands of the parties to the conflict to bring long-lasting positive change,” she added.
The office of the U.N. envoy said it was unclear how long the Geneva talks would take.
Yemen’s war erupted in 2014, when the Shiite Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military coalition intervened the following year in an effort to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government to power.
The war has killed over 112,000 people, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, and pushed millions to the brink of famine.