UN, ICRC plan ‘potential’ prisoner swap in Yemen

Officials say the swap, involving approximately 1,000 prisoners, awaits green light from Yemen’s warring parties.

A mass prisoner exchange between Yemen’s warring parties could take place amid the coronavirus pandemicUnited Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) officials have told Al Jazeera.

Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC Regional Director for Near and Middle East, told Al Jazeera that “almost everything is in place for the exchange to happen”, while UN sources said approximately 1,000 prisoners were identified for the first stage of the transfer.

“We had to balance the interest of the people detained for years and the infection risk we were taking as well as the risk detainees were taking,” Carboni said.

“All we need now is a final alignment of the parties involved. We need this button to be pressed,” he said, adding that the exchange will “potentially” happen within days.

Yemen’s civil war escalated in March 2015, when a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition intervened against the Houthi rebels fighting pro-government troops 

The Houthis still control large parts of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.

A mass prisoner exchange was first proposed during the Stockholm talks in December 2018. The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels agreed to the idea as a confidence-building step.

However, the arrangement has been stalled as the sides struggled to agree on implementation. Each side was meant to release approximately 7,000 prisoners.

Earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition announced a unilateral truce prompted by a UN plea to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. The Houthis did not accept it and the violence has continued.

The UN is trying to convene virtual talks to discuss a truce, coordinated coronavirus efforts and confidence-building steps to restart talks to end the war. 

‘Virus probably circulating’

Yemen has reported six confirmed COVID-19 cases. However, inadequate testing and a shattered health system have sparked fears the actual number of coronavirus cases could be higher in a country whose population has been weakened by widespread hunger and disease.


In a statement on Tuesday, the office of the UN aid chief in Yemen said: “There is now a very real probability that the virus has been circulating undetected and unmitigated within communities”.

“Since the first confirmed COVID case, we have warned that the virus is now in Yemen and may quickly spread,” Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, was quoted as saying in the statement.

“The factors are all here. Low levels of general immunity, high levels of acute vulnerability and a fragile, overwhelmed health system.”

Approximately 80 percent of Yemen’s population, or 24 million people, rely on aid, and 10 million are facing famine.

Source: Al Jazeera