UN hopes prisoner swap ushers in new Yemen prospects

UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths hailed the successful start of the operation. “Today’s release operation, led by the ICRC, is another sign that peaceful dialogue can deliver,” he said.
Thursday 15/10/2020
Yemeni prisoners arrive to Sana’a airport after being released by the Saudi-led coalition, Oct. 15. (AFP)
Yemeni prisoners arrive to Sana’a airport after being released by the Saudi-led coalition, Oct. 15. (AFP)

ADEN – Yemen’s warring sides on Thursday kicked off a long-awaited prisoner exchange, a day after the country’s Iran-backed rebels freed two Americans and released the remains of a third who had died in captivity.

The exchange is part is part of a UN-brokered deal between the rebel Houthis and a Saudi-backed coalition backing Yemen’s internationally recognised government in the years-long civil war.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the swap was related to the freeing of the Americans the previous day but the timing of the events appeared significant.

The conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country erupted in 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital Sana’a and much of the country’s north.

The Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US, launched a military intervention months later to restore power to Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government.

A rebel-run satellite TV channel broadcast the start of the swap as three planes carrying freed Houthi prisoners touched down in Sana’a.

Another two planes took off from Sana’a, one carrying freed Yemeni government prisoners and another carrying 15 Saudis and four Sudanese who had fought alongside government forces, the Houthis’ Al-Masirah TV said.

The planes headed to Seyun airport in southern Yemen and Abha airport in Saudi Arabia.

— ICRC role —

The Saudi-led military coalition and Yemen’s Houthi movement agreed last month in Switzerland to exchange 1,081 prisoners, including 15 Saudis, in the largest swap since peace talks in December 2018 that have since stalled.

The swap was being coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yemen.

As a neutral intermediary, the ICRC deployed more than 70 staff and volunteers who conducted medical checks – including providing protective equipment and other measures to guard against the risk of corornavirus infection – and held one-on-one interviews to ensure the detainees wanted to be sent home.

“This operation that means so much to so many families is under way,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, told Reuters, speaking from Sana’a airport.

“It is quite remarkable because they are doing this while a conflict is still active.”

UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, who attended last month’s talks in Switzerland, hailed the successful start of the operation.

“Today’s release operation, led by the ICRC, is another sign that peaceful dialogue can deliver,” he said.

“I hope the parties will soon reconvene under UN auspices to discuss the release of all conflict-related prisoners and detainees.”

Hundreds of Houthi militiamen and military commanders lined up on the tarmac in Sana’a, where a red carpet was rolled out and a military band played.

As they disembarked, the released rebels, all dressed in white robes, raised their clenched fists chanting “God is Great” and “Death to America and Israel.”

Later Thursday, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV aired live footage of freed Yemeni government prisoners disembarking from their plane in Seyun airport in the eastern province of Hadramawt, which is controlled by forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government.

So far, a total of 360 Houthi rebels arrived in Sana’a, and another 110 are still expected to arrive later today, Abdel Qader Mortada, the head of the Houthi Committee for Prisoners Affairs told reporters.

The exchange is expected to last through Friday, with the release of another 200 Houthi rebels and 150 government prisoners, Mortada added at a news conference.

The prisoner-swap deal was seen as a breakthrough during 2018 UN-brokered peace talks in Sweden.

Both parties agreed then to several confidence-building measures, including a ceasefire in the strategic port city of Hodeidah. Implementation of the tentative peace plan, however, stumbled amid ongoing military offensives and distrust between the two sides.

The Houthis’ Information Minister Daif Allah al-Shamy hailed the swap as “a huge step.”

“Today, it is not only the prisoners’ families that feel happy, but all Yemenis,” he said.

“As for those who were not included in this swap, remain assured that we have plenty of tools for further exchanges.”

Occasional releases of dozens of prisoners over the past two years have served as gestures of good faith, stoking hopes the factions would implement what the UN has described as the war’s “first official large-scale” exchange.

The two sides committed earlier this year to swapping over 1,400 detainees.

— US hostages —

On Wednesday, the Houthis freed US citizens Sandra Loli and Mikael Gidada and released the remains of Bilal Fateen, the White House and officials in the region said.

That development was apparently the result of mediation by Oman, which has often acted as a mediator in the Middle East.

Kieran Ramsey, director of the US administration’s hostage recovery cell, said Loli and Gidada would soon be on their way back to the United States.

Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to US President Donald Trump who worked on the deal, told The Wall Street Journal that Loli had been held by the Houthis for about three years and Gidada was held captive for about a year.

The Houthis, who did not comment on the release of the Americans, said about 240 rebels returned to Sana’a on two Omani flights.

Among the returnees were wounded rebels who travelled to Muscat during peace talks in Sweden two years ago.