Representatives of Yemen’s government and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels began talks in Geneva on Saturday aimed at implementing a deal on an exchange of prisoners, the United Nations said.
The deal, which brought Yemen’s warring sides – the internationally recognised government and the Houthis – to Switzerland is being overseen by UN envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
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“I hope the parties are ready to engage in serious and forthcoming discussions to agree on releasing as many detainees as possible,” Grundberg said in a statement.
“I urge the parties to fulfil the commitments they made, not just to each other, but also to the thousands of Yemeni families who have been waiting to be reunited with their loved ones for far too long,” he added.
Yemen’s conflict erupted in 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. That prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later in a bid to restore the internationally recognised government to power.
The conflict has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The talks, reportedly set to last 11 days, marked the seventh meeting aimed at implementing an agreement on prisoner exchanges reached in Stockholm five years ago, the UN said.
Under that deal, the sides agreed “to release all prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared persons, and those under house arrest”, held in connection with the conflict, “without any exceptions or conditions”.
Jason Straziuso, a Geneva-based spokesperson for the ICRC, characterised the meeting as an opportunity to “reduce the humanitarian suffering associated with this conflict.”
“If more detainees are released, it will be welcome news for families that can be reunited with loved ones,” he said.
The ICRC noted that past meetings mediated by Grundberg’s office had “resulted in the release of prisoners on both sides”.
“In 2020, more than 1,050 detainees were released and provided with transportation to their region of origin or home country following an agreement reached by the sides,” it said.
Majed Fadail, Yemen’s deputy minister for human rights and a member of the government delegation, said they were eager to release all war prisoners to help achieve a “lasting and comprehensive peace” in Yemen.
Abdul-Qader el-Murtaza, the head of the Houthi delegation, said they hoped that this round of talks proves “decisive”.
The Abductees’ Mothers Union, an association of female relatives of detainees jailed by the Houthis, called for a “radical solution” that ends the sufferings of those languishing in prisons. It said in a statement that releasing prisoners would be a step forward towards ending the conflict.
The talks began a day after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a China-brokered deal to re-establish diplomatic ties after years of frayed ties and hostilities.
Analysts cautiously welcomed the Iran-Saudi deal. Ahmed Nagi, a Yemen expert with the Crisis Group International, said that while the agreement was “an important step,” it does not mean that Yemen’s multi-stage conflict would be quickly settled.
“It is not clear what are the deal details and how Tehran and Riyadh will deal with Yemen complexities on the ground,” he said.