A wounded Al Houthi militiaman awaits his evacuation to the Omani capital Muscat at Sana’a International Airport Image Credit: AFP

A Yemeni government delegation flew out of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, early Wednesday for high-stakes talks in Sweden with Houthi rebels aimed at ending the country's devastating war, sources close to the team told AFP.

The departure of the delegation headed by Foreign Minister Khalid Al Yamani followed the arrival in Sweden of the rebel negotiating team.

An Al Houthi delegation arrived in Sweden on Tuesday for UN-sponsored Yemen peace talks, the first since 2016. A Kuwaiti passenger jet carrying an Al Houthi team accompanied by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths left Al Houthi-held Sana’a.

Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government is expected to follow the group, whose attendance was secured after the evacuation of 50 wounded Al Houthis for treatment in Oman on Monday. Previous talks in September collapsed when Al Houthis failed to show up.

Agreements between the government and Al Houthi militia on a prisoner swap and medical treatment have added momentum to the talks, which are expected to convene as early as today to discuss confidence-building measures and a transitional governing body.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash said yesterday the Sweden talks are a “critical opportunity”. “A sustainable Yemeni-led political solution offers the best chance to ending the current crisis. A stable state, important for the region, cannot coexist with unlawful militias,” he tweeted

Prisoner exchange

Yemen's Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels have agreed to exchange hundreds of prisoners ahead of planned peace talks in Sweden, sources said Tuesday.

The deal covers between 1,500 and 2,000 members of the pro-government forces and between 1,000 and 1,500 rebels, government official Hadi Haig told AFP.

The International Committee of the Red Cross welcomed the agreement.

Sweden talks 'critical opportunity' for Yemen peace: UAE

Abu Dhabi: Proposed UN-led talks in Sweden present a "critical opportunity" to bring peace to war-torn Yemen, a top official from the United Arab Emirates which is part of the pro-government coalition, said Tuesday.

"Evacuating wounded Al Houthi fighters from Sanaa once again demonstrates the Yemeni government & the Arab coalition's support for peace," said the UAE's state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, in a tweet, after 50 wounded rebels were sent Monday to neutral Oman to be treated.

"We believe Sweden offers a critical opportunity to successfully engage in a political solution for Yemen."

Sana’a: Wounded Al Houthi rebels were flown out of the Yemeni capital Sana’a on Monday for medical treatment, a critical step towards bringing warring parties to planned UN-brokered negotiations in Sweden.

The UN-chartered flight had taken off at 6pm (1500 GMT) for Oman carrying 50 wounded rebels, their escorts and a team of doctors, a security source at Sana’a International Airport told AFP.

The United Nations’ envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, meanwhile landed in Sana’a on a separate plane to meet the Iran-backed militants, who have been locked in a four-year conflict with a Saudi-led military coalition.

A UN source confirmed wounded rebels had been evacuated from the Yemeni capital in what was a “confidence-building measure” aimed at pushing ahead with negotiations between the Al Houthis and the coalition this month.

The evacuation marks a key step in kickstarting stalled negotiations as world powers press for an end to the devastating conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

Saudi Arabia and its allies, who back Yemen’s internationally-recognised President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, had agreed to allow for the evacuation of 50 wounded combatants, 50 escorts and a team of Yemeni and UN doctors to the Omani capital early yesterday morning. The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in Geneva in September.

Another wounded Al Houthi fighter awaits his evacuation to the Omani capital Muscat at Sana’a International Airport on Monday. Image Credit: AFP

The rebels had said they would attend the talks in Sweden if they were guaranteed safe passage.

Journalists were banned from Sana’a International Airport in the hours leading up to the departure of the UN flight on Monday.

Earlier in the day, wounded rebels were transported across the capital, controlled by the militants since 2014, in ambulances as they made their way to the long-defunct airport. The proposed UN-brokered peace talks have been backed by both the rebels and the government and were expected to take place in Sweden this week.

Al Houthis have said they would head to Sweden once the wounded were evacuated and if their delegation’s plane was not inspected by the coalition.

The group has agreed to travel on a plane provided by Kuwait, a source familiar with the talks said. The Saudi-backed government has said it would follow Al Houthis for the consultations, the first since 2016, which are also due to focus on a transitional governing body. “If the parties actually turn up in Sweden ... that in itself must be considered progress, even if there are no concrete outcomes,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

“Neither side wishes to be blamed for the dire consequences of the looming famine, which is starting to become a reality,” she said. “But it remains to be seen whether the political will is really there to make the necessary concessions for peace.”

Starvation

Some 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that will likely rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid. Yemen’s internationally recognised government blames Al Houthis for the humanitarian crisis, accusing the group of hijacking critical aid meant for civilians in order to sustain its war efforts.

Iran also has been proven to be illegally smuggling in weapons to Al Houthis through its ports. The government and Arab coalition have taken control of all of the countries ports except Hodeida, the country’s largest on the Red Sea.

The alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sana’a airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeida as a foundation for a wider truce, including a halt to coalition air strikes and Al Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

The group had agreed to hand over management of Hodeida port, the entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial imports and vital aid supplies, to the United Nations but both sides are at odds over who should control the Red Sea city.

The coalition, which has previously called on the Al Houthis to entirely quit Hodeida, last month renewed an offensive on the city to weaken the movement by severing their main supply line. Fighting has abated amid renewed UN peace efforts and as aid groups warn that a full-scale assault may trigger a famine.

A British push for the UN Security Council to take action on the humanitarian crisis has slowed because several member states are wary of impeding the peace talks.