Yemen: Houthis and govt forces complete prisoner exchange

Yemen: Houthis and govt forces complete prisoner exchange
In Yemen, the Houthi rebels and Saudi-back government forces have released scores of detainees, completing a prisoner exchange.
3 min read
About 900 prisoners are believed to have been exchanged [source: Getty]

Yemeni rebels and government forces freed scores of prisoners on Sunday on the last of a three-day exchange of nearly 900 detainees, boosting hopes of ending their protracted war.

Planes carrying detainees took off at the same time from the Houthi rebel-held capital of Sanaa and the government-controlled northern city of Marib, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

Some were taken to the Red Cross planes in wheelchairs. All released prisoners were given plastic bags with food to eat when the daily Ramadan fast was over.

At the airport in Sanaa, Houthi fighters staged a ceremonial dance with swords to greet their comrades.

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"Forty-eight former detainees were on board the Marib-Sanaa flight, and 42 on the Sanaa-Marib flight," ICRC media adviser Jessica Moussan told AFP.

Three other flights during the day were to complete the deal reached in Switzerland last month to exchange 181 government forces for 706 rebels, just before the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Four journalists sentenced to death by the Iranian-backed Houthis are part of the exchange, said government negotiator Majed Fadail.

Rebel political chief, Mahdi al-Mashat, said the next round of talks with Saudi Arabia, which leads the military coalition against the Houthis, would start after Eid al-Fitr expected on April 21, Yemen's Saba news agency reported.

The last talks ended hours before 318 prisoners were transported on four flights on Friday between Sanaa and government-controlled Aden, reuniting detainees with their families.

On Saturday, 357 detainees took flights between the Saudi city of Abha and Sanaa. Saudis were among the prisoners freed.

It is not known how many prisoners each side still has.

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The Houthis seized Sanaa in 2014, prompting the Saudi-led intervention the following year. Hundreds of thousands have died in the conflict which triggered a major humanitarian crisis.

A UN-brokered ceasefire that started in April 2022 has sharply reduced casualties. The truce expired in October, but fighting has largely remained on hold.

Marib governorate, an oil-rich region, saw some of the most bitter fighting in the last two years.

The city of Marib is the last northern bastion of the government, which is now based in the southern city of Aden.

The prisoner exchange is a confidence-building measure coinciding with an intense diplomatic push to end the war, as it nears its nine-year mark.

"Let us not forget the real purpose of these releases: reuniting loved ones," said the ICRC's Moussan.

"These past three days have brought back joy to so many shattered families who have been torn apart by conflict. We only hope more of these releases will happen in the near future."

Analysts say Saudi Arabia now accepts that its prolonged military campaign in support of the government will not defeat the Houthis.

The exchange and the truce negotiations come a month after Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties, sparking a wave of rapprochement across the troubled region.

A Saudi delegation has travelled to rebel-held Sanaa to push for a more durable ceasefire, even as the Houthis generally object to Saudis mediation, insisting the neighbouring kingdom has played a central role in the conflict.

The delegation left on Thursday without a finalised truce but with plans for more talks that the Saudi foreign ministry said on Saturday would take place "as soon as possible".

Experts say Riyadh likely seeks security guarantees from Iran, including stopping Houthi drone and missile attacks on Saudi territory.