Yemen’s rival sides agree on mass prisoner swap

Exchange of hundreds of prisoners taking place as opposing sides meet for second day of peace talks in Switzerland.

Yemen fighting
A tenuous ceasefire is holding in Yemen despite violations claimed by both sides [Hani Mohammed/AP]

Yemen’s rival sides have agreed to exchange hundreds of prisoners in a move aimed at supporting the United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland, despite both sides accusing each other of breaching a ceasefire.

A seven-day truce, timed to coincide with the peace talks, began at midday on Tuesday to halt fighting in nine months of civil war between Houthi rebels based in Yemen’s north and Saudi-backed southern and eastern fighters loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the talks venue near Biel in Switzerland, said the prisoner swap agreement on Wednesday was “undoubtedly a positive development” in the civil war, which has killed almost 6,000 people and led to a humanitarian disaster in the Middle Eastern country.

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“The prisoner swap is taking place, mediated by tribes on the ground,” Khodr said, adding that the swap did not appear to be in response to Yemeni government demands for Houthis to release a number of senior officials in their custody.

Abdel-Hakim al-Hasani, a senior southern leader, said 360 members of the Houthi movement held in Aden would be exchanged for 265 southern civilians and fighters on Wednesday, following tribal mediation.

An official from the Houthi-run prisons authority in the capital Sanaa said southern prisoners boarded buses on their way to the exchange venue in central Yemen.

Witnesses in Aden said they saw buses guarded by local fighters travelling through the city, apparently heading to the exchange venue, the Reuters news agency reported.

Despite the swap, both sides traded accusations of violating the truce, which included a pause in air strikes by a Saudi-led Arab alliance.

Brigadier General Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for Yemeni forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the Houthis, said a “serious escalation by land, sea and air is taking place by the alliance in various areas”, according to the Houthi-controlled Saba news agency.

Luqman said strikes from the sea were taking place on the Red Sea port city of Hodaida, while ground forces carried out attacks on Taiz city in southwestern Yemen, and air strikes by the Arab coalition had not stopped.

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“We will not stay hand-tied but we will respond strongly towards the breaches that are taking place by the alliance and their mercenaries,” Luqman said.

The Hadi-run news agency, meanwhile, said five loyalist fighters and three civilians were killed in Houthi shelling in the central city of Taiz shortly after the ceasefire began. 

The Saudi-led coalition’s spokesman, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, said the alliance was committed to the ceasefire but was ready to respond to any violation by the Houthis, according to the Saudi al-Riyadh daily.

Despite the claims from both sides, Al Jazeera correspondent Khodr said the two groups were still moving forward with the peace talks.

“The fact we are in day two and no one has walked out is progress in itself,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters