RIMBO, Sweden—Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels agreed Thursday to revive a United Nations-brokered peace process, announcing a comprehensive prisoner exchange as one of several steps to win mutual trust in an effort to end a nearly four-year war that has left tens of thousands dead and pushed millions to the brink of starvation.
The agreement to swap possibly thousands of prisoners was signed last week, though the exact number has yet to be determined. Going into the consultations, the sides said they were working toward other confidence-building measures such as reopening the airport in the capital, Sana’a.
“Today marks, we hope, a resumption of a political process,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen said.
The war pits the Saudi-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which sees itself as the legitimate ruler of Yemen, against the Iran-allied Houthis, who claim to represent a popular revolution in the country. The conflict between a Saudi-led coalition, mainly comprising Sunni-majority Arab countries and the Houthi rebels, has caused the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, despite international pressure to cease hostilities.
Several rounds of Yemen peace talks have collapsed in recent years, the most recent of which were set for September but never convened because the Houthis failed to appear. The latest U.N.-sponsored effort to revive the peace process was helped by a concerted push by the U.S. to end the fighting.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued coordinated calls in October for a cease-fire in Yemen as the humanitarian crisis worsened and support in Congress for Saudi Arabia eroded, heightened by the slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Last week, the Senate voted to advance debate on the withdrawal of that support—which includes intelligence-sharing and weapons sales.
Delegations for the two sides arrived this week in Sweden for preliminary discussions after months of mediation by Mr. Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy, who is making a last-ditch effort to uphold the international community’s relevance in resolving the conflict.
The Houthis and the government aren’t scheduled to meet in the talks, which are expected to last a week, but are lodging at the same venue.
Neither the government of Mr. Hadi nor the Houthis have shown any serious inclination to end the war. Leading up to the meeting, participants had no expectation of reaching a lasting deal during the current round of talks.
“We are not asking for the impossible. We are talking trust-building measures,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani said in an interview.
Mr. Yamani said the government wants the Houthis to respect humanitarian access, withdraw from the port city of Hodeidah and let all revenue from there go to Yemen’s central bank.
For their part, the Houthis want the Saudi coalition’s blockade of the airport in Sana’a lifted. They also want government forces, backed by the United Arab Emirates, to stop attacking Hodeidah. The U.A.E., the other major backer of the Hadi government, is leading a fierce offensive to retake the vital port city through which more than 70% of Yemen’s food is imported.
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Standing a few feet from the Yemeni foreign minister, who said the Houthis had “kidnapped Yemen by force,” the Houthi delegation leader, Mohammed Abdel Salam, told the Journal, “The Yemeni people are facing 17 countries and tens of thousands of invaders. If we were holding Yemenis hostage, why are they fighting these invaders?”
Discussions will also focus on issues such as salaries of government workers in Houthi areas, many of whom haven’t been paid in two years, and reunifying central bank operations, which the government moved to Aden in 2016 from Sana’a.
The Sweden meetings take place under heightened scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni war, triggered by the murder in Turkey of Mr. Khashoggi, who was critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, a charge that Riyadh has denied.
Mr. Khashoggi’s death has drawn strong attention in the U.S. and bolstered those in Congress who want Washington to stop providing Saudi Arabia with intelligence and military support for its Yemen war efforts.
For now, the U.S. backlash against Riyadh over Yemen has been limited. While the Trump administration has announced an end to aerial refueling of Saudi war planes operating in Yemen, it remains steadfast in its support for the Saudi government.
U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew H. Tueller who also attended the meeting, said Saudi Arabia has a legitimate security interest in protecting Yemen’s government. “Iran is supporting a group [the Houthis] that overthrew a government supported by the international community.”
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at firstname.lastname@example.org