SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition fighting them in Yemen began an exchange of more than 800 prisoners of war on Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. The agreement, mediated by the United Nations and which has been in preparation for several months, coincides with diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict.
During the three days that the operation will last, there will be flights that will take prisoners between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, controlled for years by the Houthis, who are supported by Iran, explained Majed Fadail, deputy minister of Human Rights of the Yemeni government. recognized internationally.
Other flights will transfer inmates between Sanaa and other Yemeni cities controlled by the government recognized by the international community, it added. The Red Cross indicated that on Friday there will be two rounds of simultaneous flights between Aden and Sanaa for the transfer of prisoners.
This is the most significant prisoner swap in Yemen since both sides released more than 1,000 detainees in October 2020. Thousands of people are believed to have been held by all sides as prisoners of war since the conflict broke out.
The war began in 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and much of the north of the nation. The internationally recognized Yemeni government fled south and later went into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The rebel campaign led to the intervention, months later, of a coalition led by Riyadh. In recent years, it has evolved into a remote-controlled regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with peripheral involvement by the United States, which provided intelligence aid to the Saudi kingdom. But international criticism of Saudi airstrikes that killed civilians prompted Washington to withdraw its support.
More than 150,000 people, including combatants and civilians, have died in the war, which has created one of the worst humanitarian disasters on the planet.
The prisoner exchange was scheduled to begin earlier in the week, but was delayed for apparent logistical reasons.
“With this act of goodwill, hundreds of families torn apart by conflict are reunited during the holy month of Ramadan, a ray of hope amid great suffering,” said Fabrizio Carboni, Red Cross regional director for the Middle East and Middle East, in a statement “Our deep desire is that these releases provide impetus for a broader political solution, leading to even more detainees returning to their loved ones.”
The agreement calls for the Houthis to release more than 180 prisoners, including Saudi and Sudanese coalition soldiers and four Yemeni journalists. The reporters have been detained in recent years and sentenced to death by a Houthi-controlled court in a trial that Amnesty International said was “grossly unfair”.
The pact will also mean the release of senior military officers held by the Houthis since the conflict began. They include Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who was serving as Defense Minister at the time; Nasser Mansour Hadi, the brother of former Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and relatives of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In exchange, the Saudi coalition and the Yemeni government will release more than 700 Houthi rebels, the rebels said.
Saudi Arabia has already released 13 Houthi detainees who returned to Sanaa on April 9, before the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, traveled to the capital. Counting those, the agreement will mean the release of 869 prisoners, according to the Red Cross.
Al-Jaber’s visit to Sana’a was part of the Omani-brokered dialogue between Riyadh and the Houthis, which sought to revive the national ceasefire that expired in October and revive inter-Yemeni peace talks to end the war.
The agreement reached last month between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore their relationship has boosted negotiations between the kingdom and the Houthis and raised hopes of finding a negotiated solution to the conflict.
But some analysts fear that the Saudi withdrawal could mark the start of a new version of the conflict between the country’s rival governments. In addition, there is a secessionist movement that wants to recover South Yemen, a nation that existed between 1967 and 1990.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.