Houthi rebels: 15 Saudis to be released in Yemen prisoner swap

Yemeni government and Houthis say more than 800 prisoners will be exchanged in total, after UN-mediated talks.

A member of Huthi-affiliated security forces looks on in the old city of the rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa
The Houthis control the Yemeni capital Sanaa and much of the country's heavily-populated northwest [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

The two sides in Yemen’s conflict say they have agreed to exchange detainees after talks in Switzerland facilitated by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The head of the Yemeni government delegation said on Monday about 880 detainees would be exchanged.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group said it would release 181 detainees, including 15 Saudis and three Sudanese, in exchange for 706 prisoners from the government, according to statements on Twitter by the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee Abdul Qader al-Murtada and the group’s chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam.

Al-Murtada said the exchange would happen in three weeks time.

“It’s an expression of hope. It’s an expression of humanity and it indicates the way ahead for all parties to the conflict,” said Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, who was seated between the two delegations in Bern.

UN special envoy Hans Grundberg said the deal was one of several developments that gave reason to believe things were moving “in the right direction” and towards a resolution of the eight-year conflict that has left more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

“From the discussions, I feel that there is a willingness to engage in a positive direction on trying to come to a settlement on the conflict in Yemen,” he added, referring to his talks in the past week with the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has not commented on the statements by the Houthi officials.

The United States said it welcomed the deal.

“This agreement is an important step forward, building on the momentum of the UN-mediated truce and a period of de-escalation that has lasted almost one year,” Vedant Patel, principal deputy spokesperson at the Department of State said in a statement, adding that the US was committed to “advancing a durable resolution to the conflict.”

There is hope that a deal could facilitate broader efforts to end the conflict, which have been helped by the resumption of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia this month.

Grundberg told the UN Security Council last week that there were intense diplomatic efforts at different levels to end the fighting.

The exchange of about 15,000 conflict-related detainees has been under discussion as a key confidence-building measure under a December 2018 UN-mediated deal known as the Stockholm Agreement.

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”.

But progress has been slow. A few exchanges, including in 2022 and 2020, have been coordinated by the ICRC, alongside smaller deals directly between the warring parties.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Iran-allied Houthis overthrew the government from the capital, Sanaa, in 2014.

The conflict has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

A UN-brokered truce last April has largely held, despite expiring in October without the parties agreeing to extend it.

Source: Reuters