Yemen's warring parties agree to largest prisoner swap

Clay Curtis
September 28, 2020

The two sides have since undertaken sporadic prisoner exchanges, but the release of over 1,000 loyalists and insurgents - if it materialises - would mark the first large-scale handover since the war erupted in 2014.

The prisoner-swap bargain was regarded as a breakthrough throughout the 2018 peace talks in Sweden. Both parties agreed then to several confidence-building measures, including a cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeida. Implementation of this tentative peace program, however, stumbled towards continuing army offensives and distrust between the two sides. Abdulkader al-Murtada, head of the Houthi committee that dealt with the exchange of prisoners, confirms the climate of "mutual trust" between the parties, which could "positively influence" the other dossiers still open. Among them is the brother of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Griffiths is trying to restart political negotiations to end the war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and caused what the United Nations describes as the world's largest humanitarian crisis with millions on the brink of starvation. It has killed over 100,000 people, including fighters and civilians.

"Today is an important day for over a thousand families who can expect to welcome back their loved ones hopefully very soon", said the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths. Representatives from the Saudi-led coalition also attended, the United Nations said.

The deal includes the release of "681 rebels, and 400 government forces (and allies), among them 15 Saudis and 4 Sudanese", a member of the government delegation told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Sources familiar with the talks said the Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Iran-aligned Houthi group they have been battling for over five years agreed a list of 1,080 prisoners in what would be the largest swap yet.

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The swap is scheduled to start in mid-October, a rebel official told the media.

"Griffiths encouraged both parties to" move ahead quickly with the launch and also to spare no effort in building on this momentum to quickly agree to release detainees".

Speaking at a short ceremony held inside a cabin at the Swiss village of Glion, overlooking Lake Geneva, Griffiths hailed the decision to release 1,081 prisoners as the largest such operation during Yemen's conflict.

The deal came amid months of fighting between the two sides over oil-rich Marib province, which is held by the government. The Houthis wish to grab control of Marib to fortify their position in the United Nations -mediated peace discussions.

The rebels have in recent months intensified missile and explosive-laden drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, with the coalition saying it intercepted and destroyed an explosive-laden drone on Sunday.

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