A prisoner exchange involving hundreds of detainees from Yemen’s brutal civil war will start on Thursday, a Yemeni government official said, against a backdrop of rising hopes for peace.
Nearly 900 prisoners, most of whom were fighting with Houthi rebels, will be flown between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which leads the military coalition fighting on behalf of the ousted government, the official said on Tuesday.
The Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country has been at war since the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015, months after the Iran-backed Houthis seized the capital Sanaa.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, through direct and indirect causes, and Yemen is suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.
The prisoner exchange, the biggest since October 2020, will last three days and involve multiple cities in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, said Majid Fadael, the official spokesman for the government delegation negotiating the exchange.
The Houthis will release 181 prisoners, including Saudis and Sudanese, in exchange for 706 detainees held by government forces, according to an agreement reached last month in Switzerland.
“All arrangements have been completed … to implement the agreed-upon exchange process,” Fadael tweeted.
“The first day of the exchange process will be through reciprocal flights of the Red Cross between Aden-Sanaa and Sanaa-Aden,” he added.
Jessica Moussan, public affairs and media relations adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told AFP: “Our teams are on the ground working to facilitate the safe transfer and repatriation of detainees.
“We are hoping that the upcoming detainee release operation in Yemen will take place in the next few days. However, considering the complexity of such an operation, we are not in a position to confirm any specific dates as the situation continues to evolve.”
The exchange agreement was struck days after the landmark announcement that heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran, long at odds in the turbulent Gulf region, would seek to restore diplomatic ties after a hiatus of seven years.
Yemen’s six-month, UN-brokered truce that officially lapsed in October is still largely holding, providing respite for a population of 30 million that is mostly dependent on aid.
This week, a Saudi delegation has held discussions with the Houthi leadership in Sanaa, hoping to “stabilise” the truce and seeking inter-Yemeni dialogue towards a “comprehensive political solution”, according to the Saudi ambassador.
Analysts say oil-rich Saudi Arabia wants to exit the war in neighbouring Yemen to focus on domestic projects aimed at diversifying its crude-dependent economy.
After Thursday’s flights between rebel-held Sanaa and Aden, on Friday and Saturday, prisoners will be flown in and out of Riyadh and Abha in Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Sanaa, Mocha and Marib, Fadael said.
“This exchange process will be followed by other exchanges in the near future until all detainees and abductees are released on the basis of all for all, and all detention centres and prisons are cleared,” he tweeted.
According to the Houthis, 13 prisoners arrived at Sanaa international airport on Saturday, in exchange for a Saudi prisoner who was released earlier.
“More than 1,050” prisoners were released in the last major exchange in October 2020, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis’ political council, told AFP that the talks with the Saudi delegation “now revolve around lifting the [transport] blockade completely, withdrawing all foreign forces in Yemen, and releasing all prisoners”.
“What we care about now is the issue of achieving comprehensive peace,” he said in an interview.
But in a tweet, he also warned of “the return of war… in a more fierce manner” if negotiations fail.
“Saudi aircraft will bomb Yemen again, and the Yemeni air and missile forces will resume bombing Saudi Arabia,” Bukhaiti tweeted.
UN envoy encouraged by peace talks
Meanwhile, the United Nations envoy for Yemen said that he was encouraged by the “depth and seriousness” of talks between stakeholders in Yemen, including in a visit by Saudi and Omani delegations to Sanaa.
The United Nations is not directly involved in Sanaa’s negotiations.
“Im working with all relevant actors to ensure that these efforts are in support of the UN mediation,” Hans Grundberg told Reuters.