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Yemen-Saudi peace talks make progress as prisoner swap begins

The top negotiator of Yemen’s Ansarullah movement says peace talks with Saudi Arabia have made progress and further discussions will be held to iron out remaining differences.

The two sides concluded talks in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on Friday, with the International Committee of the Red Cross announcing that the warring parties have begun an exchange of nearly 900 detainees.

Saudi Arabia says it is seeking a permanent ceasefire deal to end its military involvement in a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry.

The kingdom leads a coalition that has been attacking the impoverished country since 2015. But Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from “a swamp that is very costly on all levels”, according to Arab diplomats. 

The visit by the Saudi delegation, which departed Sana’a on Thursday, signaled willingness to build on an expired UN-brokered truce. 

Ansarullah chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam said on Friday the negotiations with envoys from Saudi Arabia and Oman, which is facilitating the talks, have been “serious and positive”.

“There was advancement on some issues with the hope of continuing studying outstanding issues at another time,” he said in a Twitter post, without elaborating.

The talks are reportedly focused on a ceasefire, full reopening of southern ports and Sana’a airport, payment of public sector wages, rebuilding efforts, and withdrawal of foreign forces from Yemen.

Sources familiar with the negotiations say the main sticking points include payment of civil servant, using oil revenue and a timeline for foreign forces to exit

the country.

Ansarullah and its allies are de facto authorities in northern Yemen. 

Local media reports said the movement has agreed to release 181 detainees, including Saudis and Sudanese soldiers who were part of the Saudi-led war on Yemen which received logistical and intelligence support from the US and other Western countries.

In exchange, 706 prisoners held by the Saudi-backed former Yemeni regime will be released in the UN and ICRC-brokered prisoner swap deal reached last March in Switzerland.

The Red Cross said that on Friday, there would be two rounds of simultaneous flights between Aden and Sana’a to transfer the prisoners. The three-day operation is the most significant prisoner exchange in Yemen since both sides freed more than 1,000 detainees in October 2020.

Initial agreement on Truce

On Thursday, a Saudi delegation left war-torn Yemen with an “initial agreement” on a truce and a commitment to hold a second round of talks with  Ansarullah, one week after Riyadh had informed Sana’a its decision to put an end to the war.

“There is an initial agreement on a truce that should be announced later on if finalized,” an Ansarullah official told AFP on condition of anonymity. “There is an agreement to hold another round of talks.”

“There is an agreement to hold another round of talks to further discuss points of difference,” the official said.  

The Saudi negotiating team was headed by Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber who left four days after he arrived seeking to “stabilize” a truce that lapsed in 2022.

Last week, Ansarullah spokesman Mohammad Abdul Salam said, “We pursue our efforts through negotiations to end the aggression and lift the siege, and we hope that the efforts will be crowned with a peace agreement.”

The war in Yemen has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed through direct and indirect causes, with 4.5 million people internally displaced and more than two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line, according to UN estimates.

Observers believe the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia could help enhance stability in the region and, in part, facilitate efforts to reach sustainable peace in Yemen. 

Tehran and Riyadh agreed to restore diplomatic ties on March 10 after intensive talks hosted by China. Top diplomats of the two countries also held a landmark meeting on Thursday in Beijing, stressing on efforts to enhance mutual trust and help boost regional security.

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