Yemen's Houthi rebels head to Sweden for expected peace talks

Yemen peace talks in Sweden a ‘vital first step’ says Washington

"The deal will be the first step to end Yemen's humanitarian issue", he said, hoping that it would be "implemented without problems".

Under heavy global pressure, Saudi-backed pro-government forces have largely suspended an offensive launched in June to take the port city.

The rebels failed to turn up for United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths' Geneva talks in September, declining to leave Sanaa over what they said were fears they would not be allowed to return.

The first Yemen talks since 2016 are widely seen as the best chance yet for peace, as the global community throws its weight behind efforts to resolve a conflict.

The previous round of the peace talks collapsed in the Swiss city of Geneva in September.

A member of the Houthi delegation participating in the negotiations in Sweden departs from Sanaa airport, Yemen December 4, 2018.

Yemeni sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that a delegation representing the legitimate government would only travel to Sweden after making sure that a Houthi delegation touches foot in the European country, where peace talks are not expected before Thursday.

The announcement of a deal on Tuesday to swap hundreds of detainees was hailed by the International Committee of the Red Cross as "one step in the right direction towards the building of mutual trust".

Yemeni scholar Hisham Al-Omeisy, who has written extensively about the conflict, said the talks would focus on "de-escalation and starting the political process".

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Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, opened the talks at a castle in Rimbo, a town north of Stockholm, wishing the Yemen adversaries strength to find "compromise and courage" as they embark on the hard task ahead.

A Houthi official said the group has agreed with Griffiths that 50 companions would also go with the fighters.

"The situation here does not make us optimistic that we will avoid war", said 51-year-old government employee Mohammed Taher.

The UN painted a bleak picture of the hunger crisis gripping the country, on Tuesday, warning that the number of people needing food aid was set to jump by four million.

But fresh fighting flared on Monday and the coalition spokesman said military operations were "ongoing".

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed his support for the talks in a tweet on Monday.

Worldwide outrage over the October 2 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate has refocused attention on the Yemen war and scrutiny over Saudi Arabia's activities in the region.

The UAE's state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the peace talks must not lose sight of the demands made of the rebels by Resolution 2216 passed by the UN Security Council in April 2015, a month after Hadi fled into Saudi exile as they overran most of the country. "A stable state, important for the region, can not coexist with unlawful militias".

But the Houthis are unlikely to agree to withdraw from territory or to lay down their arms, as the Yemeni government has demanded repeatedly.

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