Talks to bring peace to Yemen began Thursday with an announcement that the warring sides had agreed to a prisoner swap that would allow thousands of families to be reunited.
The agreement was heralded as the first of what negotiators hope will be several confidence-building measures that create momentum to resolve a conflict that began in 2014 and became so brutal that the United Nations long ago gave up counting the dead.
“I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but I want to be over-ambitious,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, told reporters in announcing the prisoner swap.
He said other early steps could include ending the Saudi-led blockade of the airport in the Yemeni capital, halting an offensive on the port city of Hudaydah and implementing economic measures aimed at preventing an impending famine.
The talks, which are being held in a Swedish castle in the town of Rimbo, just north of Stockholm, are not formal peace negotiations but preliminary discussions known as consultations.
It was the second time Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government has met with Houthi rebels. The first talks, back in 2016, lasted 100 days and devolved into more fighting.
The current talks are scheduled to last a week. There will be no face-to-face contact between the two sides. Instead, Griffiths and his associates will go back and forth between two rooms in the castle.
The warring sides were willing to meet largely at the behest of the outside powers that are embroiled in the conflict and have grown weary as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis drags on.
The United States has provided logistical support, intelligence and billions of dollars worth of arms, to a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They fight alongside tribal militias, international mercenaries and even Al Qaeda with the aim of stopping the Houthis and their Iranian backers.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo pushed for the talks last month.
The recent slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has upped the pressure to end the war, as the CIA has pinned the killing on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. lawmakers have sought to punish him by cutting off military support for the war.
“The people of Yemen have suffered far too long,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement this week. “The parties owe it to their fellow Yemenis to seize this opportunity.”
“We have no illusions that this process will be easy, but we welcome this necessary and vital first step,” it said.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in airstrikes and shelling during the war and multitudes more were maimed or went missing. At the same time, the country is facing a cholera epidemic and a famine.
The U.N. estimates that 22 million Yemenis — more than three-quarters of the population — need humanitarian assistance. With the economy in tatters, civil servants have gone unpaid for months, and farming and fishing work, the main source of livelihood for much of the population, has been disappearing.
On Thursday, the U.N. World Food Program said the number of people facing a food crisis could soon climb from 15 million to 20 million, with another 237,000 facing “a food castastrophe” if aid does not get through.
Such warnings have become more urgent in recent weeks as skirmishes have broken out again near Hudaydah. The Houthi-controlled port is vital for bringing in aid, but the coalition accuses the Houthis of using it to finance their fight and smuggle arms.
The U.N. hopes to bring Hudaydah under its administration in a bid to mollify both sides, but the Yemeni government has demanded the Houthis completely withdraw from the city.