The United Nations has proposed that both parties to the Yemen conflict pull out of Hudaydah, and that an interim entity be set up to run the embattled port city, a lifeline for millions of people in the war-torn country.
The proposal was put forward on Tuesday, the sixth day of the UN-brokered peace talks in Sweden between delegations from Yemen’s Houthi Ansarullah movement and the country’s former Saudi-backed regime.
Three sources familiar with the discussions told Reuters that the initiative, which has been presented by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, envisions the formation of a “joint committee or independent entity” to manage Hudaydah after the withdrawal of the warring sides from the strategic Red Sea port.
Hudaydah is the entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial goods and vital aid.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched an offensive against Hudaydah in June but they have hit a stiff brick wall in the face of a strong resistance put up by Yemeni armed forces – led by the Houthis — and the city’s residents.
The Saudi-led coalition claims that the Houthis are using the port city for weapons delivery, an allegation rejected by the Yemeni fighters.
On the fifth day of the Yemen peace talks in Sweden, the UN special envoy says the warring parties have not yet reached any agreements on the sticking points in the negotiations.
So far in the peace talks, both parties have agreed to a UN role in Hudaydah.
However, the Houthis say the city must be declared a neutral zone, while the team of Yemen’s former Saudi-backed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi says it should be placed under the control of the self-proclaimed Interior Ministry.
Commenting on UN proposals on Hudaydah, Mohamed Abdulsalam, who heads the Houthi team, told Yemen’s al-Masirah television that the Riyadh-sponsored party is “escalating its military aggression on Hudaydah.”
“The presence of foreign forces in Yemen is contrary to the Yemeni constitution and the resolutions of the Security Council,” he said, referring to the Saudi-led forces backing pro-Hadi militants on the battlefield against Yemeni armed forces.
“There is no excuse for the presence of foreign troops in Yemen as long as we are heading for a political solution,” he added.
Mass prisoner swap expected
Additionally on Tuesday, Yemen’s rival parties exchanged lists of over 15,000 prisoners and detainees, including UAE and Saudi nationals, for a swap agreed at the start of the peace talks.
Delegates said the swap would take place through the Houthi-held Sana’a airport and the militant-held Say’un airport in the south, with the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) overseeing the process.
“We have exchanged more than 7,000 names from each side, including some 200 high-ranking officers,” said Ghaleb Mutlaq , a member of the Houthi delegation.
Abdul Qader al-Murtada, another Houthi official, also said the process would begin on January 20.
Askar Zouail, a member of the former government’s delegation, said his side had submitted the names of 8,576 detainees to the UN, while the Houthis had given the names of some 7,487 people.
He also noted that his side had urged the Houthis to hand over the body of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni president who was killed last December.
One source told Doha-based Al Jazeera broadcaster that as part of a confidence-building measure, the Houthis were expected to release several high-ranking militant commanders as well as ex-defense minister General Mahmoud al-Subaihi and some relatives of Hadi.
UN chief to attend talks
In another development on Tuesday, the UN said in a statement that the world body’s chief Antonio Guterres would attend the closing of the Yemeni peace talks on Thursday.
Guterres, the statement read, would “hold meetings with the two delegations and will address the closing session of this round of consultations.”
Reports said that another round of peace talks could be held in early 2019.
Tehran welcomes Yemen agreements
Meanwhile, Iran has welcomed agreements between Yemen’s warring parties and backed the continuation of the peace talks to achieve final accords.
In a post on his official Twitter account on Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on foreign aggressors to stop their bombing campaign on Yemen.
Over 60k killed in Yemen since 2016
The Saudi regime and a coalition of its allies invaded Yemen in March 2015, months after Riyadh-friendly Hadi resigned as Yemen’s president amid a political conflict with the Houthi movement and fled to the Saudi capital.
According to new figures released by an independent research group, some 60,223 people had been killed in Yemen between January 2016 and the end of November 2018.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) said that nearly half of those fatalities happened this year alone.
The death toll “is far higher than official estimates – and still underestimated,” said ACLED’s Executive Director Clionadh Raleigh.
“Fatality numbers are only one approximation of the abject tragedy and terror forced upon Yemenis from several sides. This cannot be overstated,” Raleigh added.
The figure, however, does not include the deaths caused by disease, malnutrition or deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Yemen.