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Yemen warring parties agree prisoner swap as peace efforts accelerate

By AFP - Mar 21,2023 - Last updated at Mar 21,2023

People buy food items at a market in Sanaa on March 18, 2023, ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (AFP photo)

DUBAI — Yemen's Houthi rebels and its internationally recognised government reached an agreement Monday to exchange more than 880 prisoners, the United Nations confirmed, while urging the two parties, at war since 2014, to continue talks.

The agreed exchange comes after Saudi Arabia and Iran, who back opposing sides in the conflict, this month moved towards restoring diplomatic ties after a seven-year rupture.

The parties "agreed on implementation plans to release 887 conflict-related detainees from all sides", Hans Grundberg, the UN secretary general's special envoy for Yemen, told a press conference in Geneva. 

The Houthis seized control of Yemen's capital Sanaa in 2014, prompting a Saudi-led intervention the following year and fighting that has left hundreds of thousands dead and caused one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Participants in Bern, Switzerland, "agreed to reconvene in mid-May to discuss more releases", Grundberg said after 10 days of talks overseen by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

The agreement provides for the release of 181 people detained in Huthi prisons, including Saudi and Sudanese nationals, along with 706 rebels, Abdul Qader al-Murtada, head of the Houthi's Swiss delegation, told the group's Al-Masirah television earlier on Monday. 

"The exchange will take place in three weeks," he said. 

Grundberg did not wish to comment on questions about deadlines for the prisoner swaps, instead urging the government and rebels to “facilitate the speedy implementation” of the agreement and to “agree on more releases”. 

The Swedish diplomat also declined to answer questions about the total number of prisoners on both sides, citing “the complexity of the negotiations”.

A UN-brokered ceasefire that took effect last April brought a sharp reduction in hostilities. The truce expired in October, though fighting largely remains on hold.

Majed Fadail, a member of the Yemeni government’s delegation, said the Houthis would release former defence minister Mahmoud Al Subaihi and other officials, as well as four journalists.

A Yemeni government official, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the press, said 15 Saudi citizens and three Sudanese nationals were among those to be freed.

The Yemeni government welcomed the agreement in a statement released by the official Saba news agency, praising efforts by the UN and the ICRC to facilitate the deal.

The White House also hailed the “important step”, saying it “builds on the positive environment created by a truce in Yemen that has effectively stopped the fighting for the past 11 months”. 

 

Diplomatic momentum 

 

The prisoner swap was announced after Grundberg last week noted “intense diplomatic efforts” to end the conflict.

“I believe that Yemenis have an environment right now where there are possibilities to take serious steps forward,” Grundberg said in Geneva.

The latest closed-door negotiations mark the seventh meeting aimed at implementing an agreement on prisoner exchanges reached in Sweden five years ago.

Under that deal, the sides agreed “to release all prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared persons, and those under house arrest”, held in connection with the conflict, “without any exceptions or conditions”.

The latest agreement comes a year after the Huthis said they had agreed to a prisoner swap that would see 1,400 rebels freed in exchange for 823 pro-government fighters, including 16 Saudis and three Sudanese nationals.

In 2020, more than 1,050 detainees were released following an agreement reached by the warring parties, according to the ICRC.

During a Security Council meeting last week, UN officials said the detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran should offer momentum toward peace.

However, it will not solve all Yemen’s problems. The influence of the two regional powers is only one dimension of a complex conflict in a country fractured along confessional, regional and political lines, analysts warn.

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