Houthis to release leader of Islah party in deal with Yemeni government, unclear if he is alive

Houthis to release leader of Islah party in deal with Yemeni government, unclear if he is alive
Mohammad Qahtan was first detained by the Houthis in 2015, and it is not known whether he is dead or alive.
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The Houthis and Yemeni government in Aden have been negotiating prisoner swaps in Oman [Getty]

Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthis will release Mohammed Qahtan, leader of the Islah party, under a deal reached with the Saudi-backed government in Aden, top Houthi negotiator Abdul Qadir Al-Murtada told Reuters on Wednesday.

The Houthis have not confirmed if Qahtan is dead or alive, a government negotiator, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.

Qahtan, whose Islah party is a powerful member of the Saudi-backed government, was detained by the Houthis in 2015. His family said they have not been permitted to visit him and they do not know where he has been held.

If Qahtan is dead, his body will be exchanged for 50 Houthi bodies in government possession and if he is alive he will be swapped for 50 live Houthis held in government detention, Al-Murtada said in a statement to Yemen's SABA news agency.

Al-Murtada did not respond to a Reuters query about Qahtan's condition.

The Houthis refused to disclose Qahtan's status earlier this year, a key government demand that led to the failure of two previous rounds of prisoners swap negotiations.

Negotiators from both sides on Wednesday exchanged lists totaling around 400 prisoners for possible release, Al-Murtada said.

No agreement was reached, but prisoner talks will continue in the Omani-capital Muscat, he said.

Prisoner release talks have formed an important confidence-building measure as part of a broader peace process to end Yemen's decade-long civil war that is being mediated by Oman and the United Nations.

The Houthis have taken control of much of Yemen in the conflict with a Western-backed and Saudi-led coalition.

The group, a strong supporter of the Palestinian militant group Hamas fighting Israel in its war on Gaza, has since November disrupted global shipping by launching drone and missile strikes on commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea shipping route. 

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