Sanaa (AP) — An exchange of more than 800 prisoners linked to Yemen’s long-running war began Friday, the International Committee for the Red Cross said. The United Nations-brokered deal, in the works for months, comes amid concerted diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict.
It is most significant prisoner exchange in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition and their rivals, the Houthi rebels, released more than 1,000 detainees in October 2020. Thousands of people are believed to be held as prisoners of war by all sides since the conflict erupted.
In Sanaa, the Houthi-held capital, dozens of former prisoners descended from a plane to a marching band and traditional Yemeni dancers, wearing ribbons with the colors of the Yemeni flag. The former prisoners were greeted with hugs and kisses by family members and a reception line of Houthi political leaders. An injured man was supported by medical workers.
The flight arrived from Aden, the seat of the country’s internationally-recognized government allied with Saudi Arabia.
As part of the three-day exchange, flights will transport prisoners from government-controlled cities inside Yemen and Saudi Arabia to Sanaa, said Majed Fadail, a deputy minister for human rights for Yemen’s government. The Red Cross said there would be two rounds of simultaneous flights Friday between Aden and Sanaa to transfer prisoners.
Yemen’s conflict began in 2014 when the Houthis seized Sanaa and much of the country’s north. The internationally recognized government fled to the south and then into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi takeover prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later. The conflict has in recent years turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States long involved on the periphery, providing intelligence assistance to the kingdom. However, international criticism over Saudi airstrikes killing civilians saw the U.S. pull back its support.
The war has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The prisoner exchange had been scheduled to start earlier in the week but was delayed because of apparent logistical reasons.
“With this act of goodwill, hundreds of families torn apart by conflict are being reunited during the holy month of Ramadan, a glimmer of hope amidst great suffering,” Fabrizio Carboni, the Red Cross’ regional director for the Near and Middle East, said in a statement. “Our deep desire is that these releases provide momentum for a broader political solution, leading to even more detainees returning to their loved ones.”
The deal calls for the Houthis to release more than 180 prisoners, including Saudi and Sudanese troops fighting with the Saudi-led coalition, and four Yemeni journalists. The journalists were detained in recent years and sentenced to death by a Houthi-controlled court in a trial described by Amnesty International as “grossly unfair.”
The deal also will see the release of top military officials held by the Houthis since the start of the war. Those include Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who was the defense minister when the war erupted; Nasser Mansour Hadi, the brother of former Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi; and relatives of late strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In return, the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government are scheduled to release more than 700 Houthi prisoners, the rebels said.
Saudi Arabia has already freed 13 Houthi detainees who returned to Sanaa on April 9 ahead of a trip by Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, to the Yemeni capital. Including those detainees, the deal will see a total of 869 prisoners released, the Red Cross says.
Al-Jaber visit to Sanaa was part of Oman-brokered talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, aiming to revive a nationwide cease-fire that expired in October and relaunch inter-Yemeni peace talks to end the conflict.
A deal last month between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore ties has boosted negotiations between the kingdom and the Houthis and invigorated hopes of a negotiated settlement to the Yemeni conflict.
However, some analysts fear that Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal could see a new version of the conflict erupt between Yemen’s rival governments. Then there are also secessionists who want to restore a separate country of South Yemen, which existed from 1967 to 1990.
“I see prospects for temporary peace between the Saudis and the Houthis but escalation of violence within Yemen,” said Nadwa Dawsari, a nonresident scholar with the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.
She said that the Houthis have not shown themselves to be willing to compromise to reach peace with other Yemeni groups.
“That is their ideology, they feel they are entitled to rule,” she said.
Yemen also remains home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, viewed by Washington as a dangerous offshoot of the Islamic extremist group.