STOCKHOLM  -   The delegations of the Yemeni government and the Houthi militants have signed an agreement on the exchange of detainees and prisoners of war during peace talks in Stockholm, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said on Thursday.

The two delegations arrived in Sweden on Wednesday. The crisis settlement talks were expected to begin on Friday and last through December 14 but have already begun earlier on Thursday, in a castle in Rimbo, a town north of Stockholm.

“Today I am also pleased to announce the signing of an agreement on the exchange of prisoners, detainees, the missing, the forcibly detained, and individuals placed under house arrest. This is a huge tribute to those here present, and of enormous importance to many thousands of families who seek [their] return. It will allow thousands of families to be reunited, and it is a product of very effective, active work from both delegations, and I am very grateful. What we will do here and in the coming weeks is [working] on the implementation of that agreement and make it happen,” Griffiths said during a press conference.

The UN special envoy added that during the negotiations, the parties would address not only the release of the detainees but might also touch upon economic issue and the reopening of Sanaa airport.

“We will be discussing the release of prisoners ... We will look at, if there is an appetite, the opening of Sanaa airport ... the issue of the economy, and how the two parties can contribute to a coherent economic plan ... I don’t want to be over optimistic but I want to be over ambitious. We will deal with care, we will deal with respect,” Griffiths said.

According to the special envoy, the consultations in Sweden may see the sides touch upon general points regarding the settlement of the conflict.

“We have ambitions to discuss with them the outlines of what might constitute an eventual settlement ... the framework for negotiations,” Griffiths said.

The civil war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels broke out in 2015. The Houthis went on to seize vast territories in the northwest of the country, occupying the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The Yemeni government was forced to move to the city of Aden, in the south of the country, making it Yemen’s de facto capital. The Yemeni president was later forced to flee the country. The Saudi-led coalition interfered in the conflict to prevent the Houthi’s advancement in the south and has been carrying out airstrikes ever since.

The previous attempt to hold UN-brokered peace talks between the warring parties failed, with the Houthi side claiming that the coalition had prevented them from leaving the country.

WFP to scale up Yemen operations

The World Food Programme (WFP) will reach out to another four million people in Yemen with its aid provision in the next two months, which will result in the support of a total of 12 million people, Herve Verhoosel, a senior spokesman for the WFP, said at the intra-Yemeni consultations in Sweden on Thursday.

“Today we can announce a plan with ambitious timing to scale up our life saving support. At the end of this month, WFP is aiming to scale up from 7-8 million people that we are supporting today to 10 million people. An increase of more than 2 million. At the end of next month, we hope to reach 12 million people,” Verhoosel told reporters. According to the WFP spokesman, out of these 12 million people women and children will account for 3 million.

Verhoosel added that the WFP would need $152 million a month to sustain the planned increase in support.

“WFP has enough food stocks in country for now, but will need $152 million a month to sustain its scale-up into next year ... Where possible, WFP will provide cash-based transfers to inject desperately-needed liquidity into the economy,” Verhoosel said.

The WFP has called for the positive result of the consultations on Yemen in Sweden to enable greater access to people in need, Verhoosel stressed.

“It’s vital for there to be a positive outcome to the peace talks in Sweden which started today. The [Integrated Phase Classification] report makes it clear that conflict is the main driver of hunger. And, as long as there is fighting, WFP will have challenges in gaining access to the people most in need,” he said.

According to Verhoosel, the WFP has managed to “avert catastrophe in areas that we’ve been able to reach, however the areas in which 65,000 people are facing disastrous conditions, are mostly in conflict zones to which we have not had sustained access.”

Verhoosel added that the WFP commends the work of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, for gathering the Yemeni government and Houthis rebel delegations at the negotiating table.

Yemen has been gripped by a civil war between the government and the Shiite Houthi movement since 2015. The government backed by the Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes that target areas controlled by the Houthis since March 2015. The almost four-year war has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with half of the Yemeni population assessed by the UN as being on the brink of starvation.