Yemen’s warring parties have completed the largest prisoner-swap in the country’s five-year war, with rebels releasing fighters affiliated with influential pro-government armed groups.
More than 1,000 people were released and transported to their homes over the two-day exchange – completed on Friday – between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government in Yemen.
The Houthis said 671 prisoners arrived in the capital Sanaa during the process.
The swap has been two years in the making, with rival sides initially agreeing to it in December 2018 as part of the UN-sponsored Stockholm Agreement, many parts of which have not seen any progress.
Delegates representing the government and Houthi rebels finalised the details for this agreement last month after UN-brokered talks in Switzerland.
Rebel official Abdel-Qader al-Mortada said that the two sides had already agreed on another swap and are currently waiting for the UN to decide where they can meet to finalise the details.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchange of detainees, calling it an “important step” in the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement.
Guterres also urged the parties “to finalize the joint declaration, consisting of a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian measures, as well as the resumption of a comprehensive, inclusive political process to end the war”, according to a statement by his spokesperson.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which facilitated the transfer and release of detainees, said 11 flights took off or landed at five different cities: Yemen’s Sanaa, Seiyun and Aden; and Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh and Abha.
ICRC synchronised the planes as they left from their respective cities to ensure both rivals it would be a fair exchange.
Among those freed and flown to Aden on Friday was Eid Allah al-Kouli, a prominent Yemeni intellectual and author who was captured by the Houthis in Hodeidah before being imprisoned in the capital for five years, according to Ahmed Naji, a leader of Yemen’s writers’ union.
Naji described al-Kouli as a prisoner of conscience, captured for his criticism of Houthi authorities.
In Sanaa, the Houthi-run Al Masirah TV showed the newly freed rebels, clad in traditional white robes, stepping off the plane onto a long red carpet, where they were greeted by crowds of officials, aid workers and relatives as trumpets blared and cries of “God is great” rang out.
They prostrated themselves on the floor, kissing the carpet.
Yemen’s conflict has killed 100,000 people and led to what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.