RIMBO: Peace talks between Yemen's government and rivals aimed at ending four years of devastating war will open on Thursday in Sweden, the UN announced.
No breakthrough is expected at the talks, which mark the first meeting between Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Huthi rebels, linked to Iran, since 2016 — when more than 100 days of negotiations failed to end a war that has now claimed upwards of 10,000 lives and pushed 14 million people to the brink of famine.
Analysts and UN sources have set a low bar for the talks, which they say aim for “confidence-building" between the two parties, at war since 2015. No end date has been announced.
Sources close to the rebels say the Huthis are expected to request the reopening of Sanaa International Airport, which has been damaged by Saudi-led air raids and shut down by Riyadh and its allies, who control Yemen's airspace.
A source in the government delegation said President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's camp is seeking maps detailing landmines planted by the rebels.
Sources on both sides said they would demand a ceasefire — initiated by their rival — and the opening of humanitarian corridors.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths flew to Sanaa in the days leading up to the Sweden summit after his plans to host talks in Geneva in September failed when the rebels refused to leave Sanaa, saying they feared they would not be allowed to return.
“The (UN special envoy) would like to announce the restart of the intra-Yemeni political process in Sweden on 6 December 2018," his office tweeted.
The government and Huthis on Tuesday agreed to a prisoner swap, to be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, after the Sweden talks. Among the thousands expected to be released is President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's brother Nasser, a general and former senior intelligence official.
Saudi Arabia and its allies also allowed the Huthis to evacuate 50 wounded rebels from Sanaa for medical treatment in Oman, a condition the rebels had set prior to the foiled Geneva talks.
– Low bar –
A 12-member team from the Saudi-backed government headed by Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, arrived in Sweden on Wednesday, a day after rebel delegates landed in Stockholm accompanied by the UN peace envoy.
Yemeni Information Minister Moammer al-Eryani confirmed their arrival via Twitter, saying the government team “carried with them the hopes of the Yemeni people for an end to the coup and the return of the state".
The delegation had delayed its departure until the rebels arrived in Stockholm after they failed to show up for the last UN bid to convene peace talks in September, sources close to the government told AFP.
The head of the rebel delegation, Mohammed Abdelsalam, said the Huthis would “spare no effort to make a success of the talks to restore peace and end the aggression" — but called on rebel fighters to remain “vigilant against any attempt at a military escalation on the ground".
On Wednesday, six members of the rebel delegation could be seen in the grounds of the venue for the talks, the Johannesbergs Castle — a large estate with a golf course 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Stockholm, now cordoned off by police.
Analysts and diplomats have cautioned the talks could yield no breakthrough, with the two sides not actually due to sit down at the negotiating table together.
“I would have very low expectations," a Security Council diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
– Crisis deteriorating –
The US State Department hailed the peace talks as a “necessary and vital first step".
The United Arab Emirates, a key backer of the Hadi government with boots on the ground in Yemen, said the planned talks offered a “critical opportunity" to bring peace to a country in the grip of what the UN has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
“The hard work begins now," British Ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce told reporters outside the Security Council.
Thousands of prisoners have been captured by both sides in the grinding war of attrition that has devastated Yemen at a cost of nearly 10,000 lives since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015, according to World Health Organization figures.
Human rights groups put the death toll far higher.
The humanitarian crisis, already the world's worst, will deteriorate in 2019, the UN said on Tuesday, warning the number of people needing food aid is set to jump by four million.
Roughly 75 percent of Yemen's population will need humanitarian assistance in 2019, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told reporters in Geneva.
Aid groups including the Norwegian Refugee Council and UNICEF on Wednesday called for the two sides to put a halt to the fighting.
“Parties to the conflict must agree ways to reopen all ports and stabilise the nation's collapsing economy, while facilitating full and unfettered access for people in need of humanitarian aid," NRC said.
The coalition has largely suspended its offensive on the rebel-held port of Hodeida in the face of US-led calls for a ceasefire and new peace talks.
But fresh fighting flared this week, with a coalition spokesman confirming military operations were “ongoing".