Yemen’s warring parties agree to prisoner swap

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Swedish Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom (L) and UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths attend the opening press conference of the Yemeni peace talks at Johannesberg castle in Rimbo, Sweden on December 6, 2018. (AFP)
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A member of the Houthi delegation participating in the negotiations in Sweden departs from Sanaa airport on Tuesday. (Reuters)
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UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is seen during his departure at Sanaa airport, Yemen on December 4, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 06 December 2018
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Yemen’s warring parties agree to prisoner swap

  • A 12-member government delegation, led by Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani, arrived in Stockholm Wednesday evening
  • The talks mark the first meeting between Yemen’s legitimate government and Houthi militants, backed by Iran, since 2016

RIMBO: Yemen’s warring parties have agreed to a prisoner swap that will allow thousands of families to be reunited, United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths said in Sweden on Thursday.

Peace talks between Yemeni government representatives and a Houthi delegation began on Thursday, the UN envoy delivered his statement at a press conference.

The reduction of violence, Sanaa Airport, humanitarian access and economic challenges will be discussed, Griffiths said.

Earlier on Thursday, a top Houthi militia official threatened to bar UN planes from using the Yemeni capital's airport, less than two hours before UN-brokered peace talks were due to open in Sweden
"If the Yemeni capital's airport is not opened to the Yemeni people in the peace talks in Sweden, I call on the (Houthi) political council and government to close the airport for all planes," Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni government demanded that the Houthis withdraw from the port city of Hodeidah.
Yemen's foreign ministry demanded the "coupist militias withdraw fully from the western coast and hand the area over to the legitimate government" via Twitter - a reference to Houthi-held Hodeidah.

A 12-member government delegation, led by Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani, arrived in Stockholm Wednesday evening, one day after a Houthi delegation flew in from Sanaa — accompanied by the UN envoy.

The talks mark the first meeting between Yemen’s legitimate government and Houthi militants, backed by Iran, since 2016, when 106 days of negotiations yielded no breakthrough in a war that has pushed 14 million people to the brink of famine.

The Sweden meeting follows two major confidence-boosting gestures between the warring parties — a prisoner swap deal and the evacuation of 50 wounded insurgents from the Houthi-held capital for treatment in neutral Oman.

The government delegation was carrying the “hopes of the Yemeni people to achieve sustainable peace,” said Abdullah Al-Alimi, the head of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s office.

The delegation had delayed its departure until the Houthis had arrived in Stockholm after they failed to show up for the last UN bid to convene peace talks in September, sources close to the government told AFP.

The Houthis flew into Stockholm on a Kuwaiti plane from Sanaa on Tuesday, accompanied by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who had promised to travel with them to allay their concerns. 

On Wednesday, a half-dozen members of the Houthi delegation could be seen on the grounds of the venue for the talks, the Johannesbergs Castle — a large estate with a golf course in the countryside 20 km northeast of Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport.

Bundled up against the wintry cold, Houthi delegates could be seen chatting and walking on the grounds, which were cordoned off by police.

The arrival of the Houthis followed two major confidence-boosting gestures — a prisoner swap deal and the evacuation of 50 wounded insurgents from the Houthi-held capital for treatment in neutral Oman.

The US State Department hailed the peace talks in Sweden as a “necessary and vital first step” and called on all parties to “cease any ongoing hostilities.”

The United Arab Emirates, another key backer of the Yemeni government, said the planned talks offered a “critical opportunity” to bring peace to the country.

No date has been announced for the start of the negotiations, but Yemeni government sources said they could begin on Thursday.

The head of the 12-member Houthi delegation, Mohammed Abdelsalam, said it would “spare no effort to make a success of the talks to restore peace and end the aggression.” 

At the same time, he called on Houthi insurgents to remain “vigilant against any attempt at a military escalation on the ground.”

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 toward the building of mutual trust.”

The ICRC will oversee the exchange after the first round of talks in Sweden.

The agreement, struck by the UN envoy in weeks of shuttle diplomacy, came after the wounded Houthis were flown out for treatment on Monday, meeting a key Houthi precondition for joining the talks.

Yemeni government official Hadi Haig said between 1,500 and 2,000 pro-government personnel and between 1,000 and 1,500 Houthis would be released.

On the government side, they include former Defense Minister Mahmoud Al-Subaihi, who has been held by the Houthis since they overran the capital in late 2014, and President Hadi’s brother Nasser, a general and former senior intelligence official.

The Norwegian Refugee Council on Wednesday called for the two sides to put a halt to the fighting.

“Yemen needs an immediate cease-fire and concrete steps to restore public services,” it said in a statement.

“Parties to the conflict must agree ways to reopen all ports and stabilize the nation’s collapsing economy while facilitating full and unfettered access for people in need of humanitarian aid.”

Nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the World Health Organization, triggering what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Rights groups estimate the toll could be up to five times as high.

(With AFP)


Egypt restricts yellow vests sales to avoid copycat protests

Updated 8 min 27 sec ago
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Egypt restricts yellow vests sales to avoid copycat protests

  • Egypt has virtually banned protests, and the general-turned-president El-Sisi often warns that his tough hand ensuring stability is necessary
  • The yellow vests worn by French protesters have become the symbol of the wave of demonstrations that began in November

CAIRO: Egyptian authorities have quietly introduced restrictions on the sale of yellow reflective vests, fearing opponents might attempt to copy French protesters during next month’s anniversary of the 2011 popular uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, security officials and retailers said Monday.
They said industrial safety equipment dealers have been instructed not to sell yellow vests to walk-in buyers and to restrict business to wholesale sales to verified companies, but only after securing police permission. They were told offenders would be punished, the officials said without elaborating.
Six retailers in a Cairo downtown area where industrial safety stores are concentrated said they were no longer selling yellow vests. Two declined to sell them, giving no explanation, but the remaining four told The Associated Press they were told not to by police.
“They seem not to want anyone to do what they are doing in France,” said one retailer. “The police came here a few days back and told us to stop selling them. When we asked why, they said they were acting on instructions,” said another. Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Security officials said the restrictions would remain in force until the end of January. They said industrial safety product importers and wholesale merchants were summoned to a meeting with senior police officers in Cairo this week and informed of the rules.
The officials, who have first-hand knowledge of the measures, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media. Repeated calls and messages to the spokesman of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, to seek comment went unanswered.
The move showcases the depth of the Egyptian government’s concern with security. The past two years, Egyptian authorities clamped down heavily, deploying police and soldiers across the country, to prevent any marches to commemorate the Jan. 25 anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising. Scores were killed and wounded in clashes during the uprising anniversaries in years before that.
The yellow vests worn by French protesters have become the symbol of the wave of demonstrations that began in November against a rise in fuel taxes but mushroomed to include a range of demands, including the resignation of President Emmanuel Macron.
Egyptian media coverage of the unrest has emphasized the ensuing riots, looting and arson in Paris, echoing President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s frequent refrain that street action leads to chaos. He recently outright denounced for the first time the 2011 uprising, saying it plunged the country into economic and political turmoil.
Egypt has virtually banned protests, and the general-turned-president El-Sisi often warns that his tough hand ensuring stability is necessary, pointing to war and destruction in Syria, Yemen and Libya as the alternative. His emphasis on security has taken on added significance amid his ambitious program to reform the economy, which has unleashed steep price hikes, hitting the middle class hard.
Since El-Sisi rose to office in 2014, there have been no significant protests. Still, the government is constantly wary they could return, especially given that the 2011 protests erupted as part of a chain reaction, inspired by Tunisia’s “Arab Spring” uprising.
Rights lawyer Gamal Eid said his Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information has seen a recent spike in small “social protests,” with the privatization of state-owned enterprises the main issue.
“The government here is talking up its achievements, but it fears a backlash because ordinary people have yet to tangibly benefit from the mega projects underway,” said Eid, who is banned by authorities from traveling while his group’s online site is blocked by the government.
Negad Borai, another rights lawyer, said the government could delay expected price hikes next year “to avoid protests inspired by what’s happening in France.”
El-Sisi led the military’s 2013 ouster of a freely elected but divisive president. He was elected in 2014 and, earlier this year, won a second-term, running virtually unopposed. He has overseen the largest crackdown on critics seen in Egypt in living memory, jailing thousands of Islamists along with pro-democracy activists, reversing freedoms won in the 2011 uprising, silencing critics and placing draconian rules on rights groups.