By Aziz El Yaakoubi
RIMBO, Sweden (Reuters) – Yemen’s Houthi movement and the Saudi-backed government on Tuesday exchanged lists of some 15,000 prisoners for a swap agreed as a confidence-building measure at the start of U.N.-sponsored peace talks.
Both parties at the consultations in Sweden, set to last until Dec. 13, have yet to settle major sticking points, including a ceasefire in the port of Hodeidah, reopening of Sanaa airport and shoring up of the central bank.
The talks are being held as Western allies press Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a military coalition backing the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to end a war that has pushed Yemen to the verge of famine.
Delegates said the prisoner swap would be conducted via Houthi-held Sanaa airport in north Yemen and government-held Sayun airport in the south – a process overseen by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“We have exchanged more than 7,000 names from each side, including some 200 high-ranking officers,” said Ghaleb Mutlaq, a delegate for the Iran-aligned Houthis.
Hadi’s foreign minister tweeted that the government had submitted a list of 8,576 prisoners, including activists and journalists.
The Houthi delegate said a joint committee would investigate those still missing.
Tuesday’s talks were expected to focus on Hodeidah, a major Red Sea port and humanitarian lifeline for millions that is now a focus of the war, according to a source familiar with the consultations.
Both parties have also agreed on a U.N. role in the port but differ on who should control the city itself. The Houthis say it should be declared a neutral zone, while the Hadi government wants Hodeidah under its control.
U.N. mediator Martin Griffiths wants to avert a full-scale coalition assault on Hodeidah, the Houthis’ main supply line and entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial goods and vital aid.
The Sunni Muslim, Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive on Hodeidah this year in an attempt to weaken the Houthis who control most of Yemen’s population centres, including the capital Sanaa, from which it ousted Hadi’s government in 2014.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to exit a costly conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, as they face years of military stalemate. Western nations, some of which supply the alliance with arms and intelligence, want the war to end.
The coalition intervened in the Arabian Peninsula war in 2015 to restore Hadi’s government, a move largely seen in the region as part of a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim Iran.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)