Freed Yemeni prisoners attend a meeting with the leader of the rebels' supreme political council in Sanaa on January 31, 2017, after their release as part of a prisoner exchange

Sanaa (AFP) - Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Huthi rebels said Tuesday they had agreed to swap hundreds of prisoners in another boost to UN efforts to convene new peace talks later this month.

The deal was swiftly welcomed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which will oversee the exchange after the first round of planned peace talks in Sweden.

The deal was struck by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who was in the rebel-held capital Sanaa on Tuesday for meetings already buoyed by the evacuation of 50 wounded Huthi insurgent fighters for treatment in neutral Oman on Monday – a key rebel precondition for the talks.

The envoy is seeking to convene peace talks in Sweden, perhaps as early as this week, after a previous attempt collapsed in Switzerland in September.

The United Arab Emirates, which is a key backer of the beleaguered government, said the planned talks offered a “critical opportunity” to end nearly four years of devastating war.

A wounded Yemeni rebel is transported by ambulance to Sanaa International Airport, before being evacuated to the Omani capital Muscat for treatment, on December 3, 2018

Yemeni government official Hadi Haig told AFP that between 1,500 and 2,000 members of pro-government forces and between 1,000 and 1,500 rebels would be released.

On the government side, they include former defence minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who has been held by the rebels ever since they overran the capital in late 2014, and President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s brother Nasser, a general and former senior intelligence official.

Rebel official Abdel Kader al-Murtadha confirmed the deal, adding that he hoped it would be “implemented without problem”.

ICRC spokeswoman Mirella Hodeib welcomed the agreement, saying: “This is one step in the right direction towards the building of mutual trust among Yemeni communities.”

- Worst crisis ‘deteriorating’ -

Thousands of prisoners have been captured by both sides in the grinding war of attrition that has devastated Yemen.

The resulting humanitarian crisis, already the world’s worst, will deteriorate in 2019, the UN said Tuesday, warning that the number of people needing food aid is set to jump by four million.

Yemeni mother Nadia Nahari holds her severely malnourished five-year-old son Abdelrahman Manhash, who weighs just five kilogrammes (11 pounds), at a treatment clinic in the government-held Khokha district of Hodeida province on November 22, 2018

Overall, 24 million people in Yemen – roughly 75 percent of the population – will need humanitarian assistance in 2019, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told reporters in Geneva.

He said the dire figures underlined the importance of the planned peace talks in Sweden.

If the negotiations show results, “it is possible that we could find by the second half of the year that the extreme edge could get taken off the suffering of those people who have no form of income,” he said.

No date has yet been set for the talks but hopes have been building they could go ahead this week.

Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah told reporters that a rebel delegation was now set to leave Sanaa for Stockholm on Tuesday together with his country’s ambassador to Yemen.

The oil-rich Gulf emirate, which has been a mediator in the devastating conflict, hosted Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom for talks in Kuwait City on Monday.

UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths arrives in the rebel-held capital Sanaa on November 21, 2018 as he intensifies his efforts to convene new peace talks in Sweden

International support for the new peace bid has been spurred by UN warnings that 15 million Yemenis are at risk of famine as the humanitarian situation deteriorates.

A coalition-backed government offensive on the rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida has threatened to cut virtually the only gateway for UN-supervised aid.

Additional momentum has come from the mounting Western pressure on Saudi Arabia since the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2.

- Deep divide -

The coalition has largely suspended its offensive on Hodeida in the face of US-led calls for a ceasefire and new peace talks.

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

If and when the talks do convene, UN mediators will have to overcome a huge chasm between the rival sides to secure the concrete steps they seek on the ground.

Map showing war damage in Sanaa and Hodeida since December 2017

The UAE’s state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the 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, cannot coexist with unlawful militias,” Gargash said.

“UN Security Council Resolution 2216 offers a workable road map.”

The resolution demands that the rebels recognise the legitimacy of Hadi’s government and withdraw from all towns and cities they had taken, including Sanaa.

The demands are unacceptable to the rebels and subsequent peace efforts, including three months of negotiations in Kuwait that broke down in 2016, have focused on a power-sharing government and a federal political system.