Warring parties in Yemen agree on major prisoner swap

Updated February 17, 2020

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SANAA: Yemenis cheer at the site where a Saudi aircraft crashed following an air strike by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Al Jawf province. The fate of the crew remained uncertain.—AFP
SANAA: Yemenis cheer at the site where a Saudi aircraft crashed following an air strike by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Al Jawf province. The fate of the crew remained uncertain.—AFP

CAIRO: Yemen’s warring sides have agreed to implement a long-delayed and major prisoner swap, the United Nations said on Sunday, in a sign that talks to end the disastrous war between the country’s internationally recognised government and its Houthi rebels could be making progress.

It would be the first official large-scale exchange of its kind since the beginning of the conflict in the Arab World’s poorest country, according to the UN.

The prisoner swap deal was seen as a breakthrough during 2018 peace talks in Sweden. The Houthis and the internationally recognised government agreed then to several confidence-building measures, including a ceasefire in the strategic port city of Hodeida.

Implementation of the tentative peace plan stumbled amid ongoing military offensives and a deep-seated distrust between the two sides.

The conflict also has been a theater for the regional rivalry between Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels, and Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition supporting the internationally recognised Yemeni government.

The UN mission in Yemen said that both the rebels and Yemeni government had decided to immediately begin with exchanging the lists for the upcoming release of prisoners. Sunday’s statement came after seven days of meetings between the two sides in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

Today the parties showed us that even with the growing challenges on the ground, the confidence they have been building can still yield positive results, the UN envoy Martin Griffiths said.

The UN mission did not disclose specific numbers for the expected prisoner exchange.

Abdul-Qader al-Murtaza, a rebel official in charge of prisoners affairs, said in a tweet that the first phase of the deal includes the release of more than 1400 prisoners from the two sides. He said talks would continue for another two days to prepare and revise the final lists.

The talks were co-chaired by Griffiths office and the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC. Representatives from the Saudi-led coalition also attended the talks, the UN said.

Griffiths urged both parties to move forward with the agreed-upon prisoner exchange with the utmost sense of urgency. He did not elaborate when they would start the exchange.

Franz Rauchenstein, the head of the ICRC in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, welcomed the step as encouraging.

Today, despite ongoing clashes, we saw that the parties have found common humanitarian ground that will allow many detainees to return to their loved ones, Rauchenstein said.

The war in Yemen has also spawned the worlds worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical shortages. It has killed over 100,000 people, including fighters and civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks violence reports in Yemen.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam said Saudi and Sudanese prisoners would be included in the release from his side. The Saudi-led coalition has brought into Yemen Sudanese fighters on its side.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami said he welcomed the phased agreement to release prisoners, in a tweet.

The breakthrough in talks came after another bout of intense fighting in different areas in Yemen, that killed and wounded hundreds of people from both sides.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2020