Yemenis complete prisoner swap, peace prospects uncertain

The warring sides had agreed in 2018 to swap 15,000 detainees split between both sides to pave the way for political negotiations to end the conflict, but progress has been slow.
Saturday 17/10/2020
Yemeni prisoners, who were held by Houthis, arrive at the airport in Aden. (DPA)
Yemeni prisoners, who were held by Houthis, arrive at the airport in Aden. (DPA)

ADEN – Yemen’s warring sides completed a major, UN-brokered prisoner swap on Friday, officials said, a development that many hope will revive the country’s stalled peace process after more than five years of grinding conflict.  But many analysts are skeptical.

The two sides exchanged hundreds more prisoners on Friday, the second and final day of an operation to fly about 1,000 men home.

Among those freed and flown to Aden on Friday was Eid Allah al-Kouli, a prominent Yemeni intellectual and author who was captured by the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Hodeidah before being imprisoned in the capital for five years, according to Ahmed Naji, a leader of Yemen’s writers’ union.

Naji described al-Kouli as a prisoner of conscience, targeted for his criticism of Houthi rebels.

A Saudi-led military coalition, backing the internationally recognised Yemeni government, and its adversary, Iran-backed Houthi militia movement, agreed last month to exchange 1,081 prisoners, in the largest swap of its kind in the five-year-old conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 1,056 in total were returned home, adding it hoped this would lead to further detainee releases and transfers.

Men descending from a plane when it landed in Aden, temporary capital of Yemen’s government, prostrated their foreheads to the tarmac. Some embraced waiting friends and relatives.

In Sana’a on Thursday night, celebratory fireworks crackled in the night sky as buses carrying returned prisoners moved down a road lined with people cheering in welcome.

On Friday 352 prisoners were exchanged after more than 700 were swapped on Thursday — including a plane carrying Saudis and Sudanese to Riyadh — said the ICRC, which managed the process.

ICRC planes shuttled twice between Aden city and the Houthi-controlled capital Sana’a on Friday, taking 151 detainees to Aden and 201 to Sana’a.

UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Thursday the swap was an “airlift of hope”, adding that both parties remain in negotiations for a permanent ceasefire, which he hoped could be agreed by the end of the year.

The warring sides had agreed in 2018 to swap 15,000 detainees split between both sides to pave the way for political negotiations to end the conflict, but progress has been slow.

Ahmed Hamed, the Houthi-appointed head of the Presidency Office in Sana’a, said he hoped more progress on prisoners would be made, given the UN push on this issue.

The head of the Houthis’ prisoners’ committee told Al Masirah that seven bodies of men who died in detention had been received so far and another is expected to arrive on Saturday. He also said he hoped another, bigger swap deal could be agreed.

Preceding the exchange, on Wednesday, two US nationals held by Houthi rebels in Yemen were released and taken to Oman, with Oman sending flights to Sanaa to return 250 Yemenis from the Gulf state and abroad.

Yemen has been at war since the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government from power in Sana’a in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene in 2015.