‘Airlift of hope’: Hundreds freed on day 2 of Yemen prisoner swap

More than 350 prisoners expected to be exchanged between internationally-recognised gov’t and Houthi rebels.

More than 700 prisoners were exchanged on Thursday as the operation started, said the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is managing the process [File: Ali Owidha/Reuters]

Planes carrying prisoners to be exchanged by Yemen’s warring parties took off on Friday on the second day of an operation to return about 1,000 men home and help build momentum for a new push to end a catastrophic war.

A Saudi-led military coalition, which supports the internationally-recognised Yemeni government, and the country’s Houthi rebel movement, who control the capital Sanaa and parts of northern Yemen, agreed last month in Switzerland to exchange 1,081 prisoners, including 15 Saudis, in the largest swap of its kind in the five-year-old conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily in support of internationally-recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in March 2015 after the Houthis, linked to Iran, captured Sanaa and vast swaths of the Middle East’s poorest country.

More than 700 prisoners were exchanged on Thursday as the operation started, said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is managing the process.

An ICRC plane took off on Friday morning from Aden city, the temporary capital of the Yemeni government, ferrying detainees to Houthi-controlled Sanaa, a Reuters witness and the ICRC said.

It was carrying 101 Houthi prisoners, an ICRC spokesperson said.

At the same time, an ICRC plane took off from Sanaa airport carrying 76 prisoners to Aden, the ICRC spokesperson said.

The ICRC then announced on Twitter that two more planes transferred former detainees from Sanaa to Aden and vice versa.

Altogether the exchanges on Friday “facilitated the release and transfer of 352 former detainees between Aden and Sanaa”.

Men disembarking when it landed in Aden prostrated and kissed the tarmac. Some embraced waiting friends and relatives.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said on Thursday the swap “brings hope for peace-building”.

UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Thursday the swap was an “airlift of hope”, adding that both parties remain in negotiations for a permanent ceasefire, which he hoped could be agreed by the end of the year.

The warring sides had agreed in 2018 to swap 15,000 detainees split between both sides to pave the way for political negotiations to end the conflict, but progress has been slow.

Yemen has been at war since the Houthis overthrew the internationally-recognised government in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene in 2015.