Ceasefire and diplomatic talks announced for Yemen
LONDON - A prisoner exchange has been conducted ahead of the scheduled April 10th cessation of hostilities in the war in Yemen and warring factions have agreed to UN-sponsored talks in Kuwait a week later.
The Iran-allied Houthi rebels, who control Sana’a, completed a prisoner swap with Saudi Arabia on March 27th, releasing nine Saudis in exchange for 109 Yemenis.
The move is “a sign of Saudi goodwill” before the Kuwait negotiations, Andreas Krieg of the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College told Agence France- Presse, adding that it indicated a willingness of both sides “to make compromises to bring these talks to a successful end”.
However, the fate of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh hangs over the peace talks and was evident a day before the prisoner swap at a rally in Sana’a to mark the first anniversary of the start of the war.
The rally, which the Houthis banned their members and supporters from attending, saw Saleh give what analysts described as a rambling, incoherent speech. He blasted the Saudi-led coalition and the United Nations but also called for direct talks with Riyadh.
Yemeni analysts saw this as an attempt by Saleh to build political capital ahead of the Kuwait talks.
“I expected the Saleh rally to generate large numbers, particularly from tribes around the outskirts of Sana’a, however these ‘popular’ rallies weren’t helpful to him in 2011 and won’t be today,” analyst Abdullah Ismail told The Arab Weekly, adding that public rallies are a part of Saleh’s repertoire, which includes short-term deal brokering and utilising of money to gain political clout.
“That doesn’t change that truth on the ground that he has been isolated from the talks between the Houthis and the coalition,” he added.
Despite the former Yemeni president’s bravado, reports surfaced that Russia and Oman are mediating with the Yemeni government to secure Saleh’s and his family’s departure.
According to US geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, Oman did not want to host Saleh in 2012 but now providing refuge to the former president would help the internationally recognised Yemeni government. Russia could also take Saleh in.
The Saudi-funded London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper quoted an unnamed Yemeni minister as saying the mediation aims at securing Saleh’s departure with a guarantee of immunity; in return his guards would lay down their weapons and hand over Sana’a without further confrontations.
The United Nations plans to form a committee that includes prominent Yemenis to monitor the ceasefire. It has requested both warring factions to draft a “concept paper” concerning key negotiation points.
“This is really our last chance,” UN Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said. “The war in Yemen must be brought to an end.”
The announcement of talks comes as militants, mainly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and an Islamic State (ISIS) offshoot, exploited the fighting and made gains on the ground in Yemen. The Pentagon on March 22nd announced that a US drone strike on a terrorist camp had “removed from the battlefield” dozens of al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen’s Hadramawt governorate. Local officials put the death toll as high as 50.