The head of the U.N. food agency has accused Shiite Houthi rebels of blocking access to food deliveries to civilians devastated by the war in Yemen.
World Food Program chief David Beasley, who has previously criticized the Saudi-led coalition for a blockade of Yemeni ports, told The Associated Press on Thursday that it's now the Houthis who are impeding access in parts of the country.
In an interview at the agency's headquarters in Rome, Beasley says: "I'm on their back because we have access issues out into different areas throughout Yemen. We need more people; they blocked our visas. We need equipment, they blocked our equipment, they blocked our access."
Beasley, who visited Yemen two weeks ago, called the humanitarian situation there "desperate" and said the WFP needs access and money to avert a famine.
The international Red Cross says it will oversee the implementation of an agreement between Yemen's warring sides to carry out a prisoner exchange, hailing it as "one of the first positive steps for Yemen" as peace talks got under way in Sweden.
Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East at the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, said the group "has been asked to play its role as a neutral intermediary and provide technical support."
"We are determined to help facilitate the transfers and reunite people separated from their families," he said in a statement minutes after Thursday's announcement of the prisoner exchange at the talks in Rimbo, north of the Swedish capital Stockholm.
Carboni said the ICRC hopes the agreement will build confidence toward a political solution in the war.
"The Yemeni people can't wait any longer for their ordeal to end."
The U.N. envoy for Yemen says the country's warring sides have agreed on a prisoner exchange as part of confidence building measures for the war-torn nation.
Martin Griffiths spoke at the opening of Yemen peace talks in Sweden on Thursday.
Representatives of the internationally recognized government and the Shiite Houthi rebels sat across from each other as Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom and Griffiths opened the talks.
Griffiths said: "Today I'm also pleased to announce the signing of an agreement on the exchange of prisoners" that will allow thousands of families to be reunited.
Wallstrom told the Yemeni delegates: "Now it is up to you, the Yemini parties. You have the command of your future."
Sweden's foreign minister has opened the U.N.-sponsored Yemen peace talks, bringing the Arab country's warring sides to negotiating table and wishing them the strength to find "compromise and courage" as they embark on the difficult task ahead.
Margot Wallstrom opened the talks on Thursday in Rimbo, a town north of Stockholm, where representatives from Yemen's internationally recognized government and the Shiite Houthi rebels sat across from each other.
The U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said the "coming days are a milestone."
He urged the parties: "Don't waver... let us work in good faith ... to deliver a message of peace."
The U.N. food agency says it's planning to rapidly scale up food distribution to help another 4 million people in Yemen over the next two months, more than a 50-percent increase in the number reached now - if access can be maintained in the poor, war-stricken country.
World Food Program's spokesman Herve Verhoosel says the "ambitious undertaking" finalizes plans in the works in recent months to reach 12 million people with food and nutritional supplements through January, from between 7-8 million now.
The target population includes some 3 million women and children who need special support to prevent malnutrition. Verhoosel said the rollout will require "safe, immediate and unimpeded access for food and other vital supplies."
WFP's announcement on Thursday comes as Yemen's warring parties are to hold U.N.-mediated talks in Sweden.
Yemen's warring sides are gathering in Sweden for U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at halting the Arab country's catastrophic three-year war.
A castle in the Swedish town of Rimbo, north of Stockholm, has been chosen as the venue for the talks, expected to start on Thursday.
However, U.N. officials say they don't expect rapid progress toward a political settlement but hope for at least minor steps that would help to address Yemen's worsening humanitarian crisis.
Both the internationally-recognized government, which is backed by a U.S.-sponsored and Saudi-led coalition, and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels say they are striving for peace. A Houthi delegation arrived in Stockholm late Tuesday, accompanied by U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths. The government delegation and the head of the rebel delegation headed to Sweden on Wednesday.
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