Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Houthi rebels agreed to exchange about 1,000 detainees and prisoners, including 15 Saudis, as part of trust-building steps aimed at reviving a stalled peace process, the United Nations said.
“I am personally extremely pleased to be here to announce that you have reached a very important milestone,” UN envoy Martin Griffiths told reporters on Sunday.
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The Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Houthi movement signed a deal to swap some 15,000 detainees in 2018, but the pact has been slowly and only partially implemented.
The two sides will now free 1,081 detainees and prisoners, Griffiths said in a joint news briefing with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after a nearly 10-day meeting of the prisoners’ exchange committee held in the Swiss village of Glion above Lake Geneva.
Sources familiar with the talks and Houthi-run Masirah TV said the rebels would release 400 people, including 15 Saudis and four Sudanese, while the coalition would free 681 Houthi fighters in the largest swap since peace talks in Stockholm in December 2018.
“I urge the parties to move forward immediately with the release and to spare no effort in building upon this momentum to swiftly agree to releasing more detainees,” Griffiths said.
The Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV channel quoted a rebel source as confirming a deal had been reached and both parties “express their commitment to implement the agreement”.
“What matters to us is implementing the deal, not only signing it,” senior rebel commander Mohamed Ali al-Houthi tweeted on Saturday.
Yemen’s Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Hadhrami welcomed the deal as a “humanitarian” breakthrough, but also said in a tweet “the government demands the agreement is implemented without stalling”.
ICRC Middle East director Fabrizio Carboni, sitting next to Griffiths, called on the two warring parties to provide “security and logistical guarantees” for swift releases. The ICRC team will interview those released and give them medical checks.
In unilateral moves, the Houthis last year freed 290 prisoners and Saudi Arabia released 128, while a locally mediated swap in Taiz governorate saw dozens freed. In January this year, the ICRC facilitated the release of six Saudis held by the Houthis.
The latest talks that started in an undisclosed location in Switzerland on September 18 aimed at agreeing to the release of 1,420 prisoners. Among them is the brother of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
But the release of General Nasser Mansour Hadi from the hands of the rebels “has been postponed”, according to a Yemeni government delegation member.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Houthis removed the internationally recognised government from power.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and sparked what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh launched informal talks for a ceasefire with the Houthis late last year as it seeks to exit a costly war.
The conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country erupted in 2014, when the Iran-allied Houthis seized the capital and much of the country’s north. A Saudi-led coalition, determined to restore Hadi’s government, launched a military intervention months later.
The war in Yemen has left millions suffering from food and medical shortages. It has killed more than 100,000 people, including fighters and civilians.