Yemen’s Warring Parties Start Exchanging 1,000 Prisoners
Planes carrying prisoners exchanged by the warring parties in Yemen took off from three airports on Thursday in an operation to return about 1,000 men home and help build the trust to enable fresh talks to end a devastating war.
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 of its kind in the five-year-old conflict.
In an operation managed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, two airplanes carrying members of the coalition freed from detention took off from the airport in the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, a Reuters witness said.
“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 Sanaa airport.
“It is quite remarkable because they are doing this while a conflict is still active.”
One of the airplanes was carrying Saudi and Sudanese detainees and flew to Saudi Arabia. The other plane flew to Sayoun airport in government-held Hadramout region.
An airplane carrying Houthis released from captivity by the coalition departed Sayoun, and a second arrived from Abha airport in Saudi Arabia, another Reuters witness and sources said.
The ICRC later said in Twitter posts that 484 prisoners had been exchanged via a total of five planes taking off from Sayoun, Sanaa and Abha. More flights are scheduled over the next two days, it added.
Under the deal, the Iran-aligned Houthi group is to release around 400 people while the coalition would free 681 Houthi fighters.Trust Building
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said the swap “brings hope for peace-building.”
A coalition statement, which confirmed that the plane carrying 15 Saudis and four Sudanese had landed in an airbase in Riyadh, stressed the “political and military leaderships’ keenness for the return of all POWs and detainees.”
The warring sides had agreed at peace talks in 2018 to swap some 15,000 detainees split between both sides as part of trust-building measures to pave the way for political negotiations to end the conflict, but there has been slow progress on the pact.
In a statement, U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths said he hoped the parties would soon reconvene under U.N. auspices to discuss the release of all war-related prisoners and detainees.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Houthis ousted the internationally recognized government from power in Sanaa in late 2014, prompting the Western-backed coalition to intervene in March 2015.
The conflict, seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been in military stalemate for years with the Houthis holding most big urban centers.
The war has killed more than 100,000 people and spawned what the United Nations says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
With the conflict’s effects intensified by deadly outbreaks of cholera and now COVID-19, some 24 million Yemenis, 80% of the population, require aid, while 20 million lack sufficient food supplies and access to clean water, Carboni said.
ICRC, acting as a neutral intermediary, 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.