Yemen’s warring parties have agreed to exchange some 1,000 prisoners, including 19 Saudi soldiers, a partial implementation of trust-building measures agreed during peace talks held in Sweden at the end of 2018.
Sources familiar with the talks said the Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Iran-aligned Houthi group they have been battling for over five years have agreed on a list of 1,080 prisoners to be swapped in what would be the largest instalment yet.
The prisoner swap deal, which aimed for the release of some 15,000 detainees from the two sides, has been slowly and only partially implemented. The ICRC will oversee the return of detainees to their families.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths and an official from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are due to hold a news briefing later on Sunday, at the end of a week-long meeting of the Yemen prisoners and detainees committee.
“What matters to us is implementing the prisoners [exchange] and not just signing it,” senior Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted early on Sunday.
In unilateral moves, the Houthis last year freed 290 prisoners and Saudi Arabia released 128, while a locally mediated swap in Taiz governorate saw dozens freed. In January this year, the ICRC facilitated the release of six Saudis held by the Houthis.
The latest talks that started in an undisclosed location in Switzerland on September 18 aimed at agreeing to the release of 1,420 prisoners. Among them is the brother of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
But the release of General Nasser Mansour Hadi from the hands of the rebels “has been postponed”, according to a Yemeni government delegation member.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Houthis removed the internationally recognised government from power in the capital, Sanaa in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene in March 2015.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, and sparked what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh launched informal talks for a ceasefire with the Houthis late last year as it seeks to exit a costly war.