Yemen’s warring sides said Monday they agreed to release nearly 900 prisoners of war in a U.N.-brokered deal amid international efforts to end the year-long conflict.
The deal on a prisoner exchange capped 10 days of intensive talks in Switzerland between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Houthi rebels. The discussions were co-chaired by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The deal involves the release of over 700 Houthi prisoners, said Abdul-Qader el-Murtaza, the head of the Houthi delegation. The Iran-backed Houthis would release more than 180 prisoners, including Saudi and Sudanese troops fighting with the Saudi-led coalition, he added.
It’s unclear how many prisoners remain but the number is thought to be in the thousands on both sides.
El-Murtaza said the releases would begin in three weeks, and that both sides would convene for another round of talks on more prisoner exchanges after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts this week.
Majed Fadail, Yemen’s deputy minister for human rights and a member of the government delegation, said the releases would include four Yemeni journalists. They were detained and sentenced to death in recent years by a Houthi-controlled court in a trial described by Amnesty International as “grossly unfair.”
Fadail said the deal also includes the release of top military officials held by the Houthis since the start of the war. Among them are 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; relatives of late strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, and sons of former Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, he said.
A joint statement from the U.N. and the ICRC said the parties also agreed to carry out “joint visits to each other’s detention centres and to enable access to all detainees during these visits.”
“This is a crucial step that will end the suffering of many separated families and help build confidence between the parties that we hope will lead to further release operations,” said Daphnee Maret, head of the ICRC delegation in Yemen.
The U.N. envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, called for “the swift and smooth implementation” of the deal, and the release of all conflict-related detainees.
“And I hope there will be an end soon to the suffering of all Yemenis who are still waiting to be reunited with their loved ones and who are pained by uncertainty about the fates of those dearest to them,” he said.
Fabrizio Carboni, a regional director with the ICRC, told reporters in Geneva that the organization would need “free and unfettered” access to detainees to collect their “informed consent to be transferred and identify any special needs that they have.”
The deal was a follow-up to a 2018 agreement that demanded that both parties release all those detained in relation to the conflict “without any exceptions or conditions.” The agreement was part of a wider settlement that ended fierce fighting over the crucial port city of Hodeida, which is held by the Houthis.
Since then, both parties have released many prisoners, with a major exchange in October 2020 of more than 1,000 detainees from both sides.
Monday’s deal came more than a week after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a China-brokered deal to re-establish diplomatic ties after years of frayed ties and hostilities. The Iran-Saudi deal, announced in Beijing on March 10, has invigorated hopes of a settlement to Yemen’s conflict.
Grundberg, the U.N. envoy, told the U.N. Security Council last week that intense diplomatic efforts are underway to end the war, citing new regional and international momentum, including the Saudi-Iranian deal.
Yemen’s conflict began in 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north, ousting the internationally recognized government that fled to the south then into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi move prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later in a bid to restore the internationally recognized government to power. The conflict has in recent years turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The conflict has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.