Progress in Yemen peace talks hailed despite prisoner swap delay

The direct talks between Houthi and Saudi officials have raised hopes for peace in Yemen ravaged by nine years of war.

A prisoner swap expected on Wednesday between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised government has been delayed, but the first remarks by warring factions on the latest peace talks to end the country’s nine-year conflict conveyed optimism.

Saudi and Omani delegations are holding talks with Houthi officials in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, with the progress of the talks lauded by several parties to the conflict on Monday, despite the delay in the prisoner exchange.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, tweeted on Monday that the talks are meant to “stabilise the truce and cease-fire, support the prisoner exchange process and explore venues of dialogue between Yemeni components to reach a sustainable, comprehensive political solution in Yemen”.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni government’s Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani, welcomed the talks, also tweeting on Monday that the “atmosphere is more ready than ever to achieve peace”.

The prisoners swap was postponed to April 14 upon the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which brokered the exchange, the Yemeni government’s Deputy Minister for Human Rights Majid Fada’el tweeted on Saturday.

Omani and Saudi envoys arrived in Yemen the same day to meet with the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, who said at the time that his group seeks “honourable peace” that would ensure Yemenis get “freedom and independence”, Houthi news agency SABA reported.

Yemen has been embroiled in conflict for years since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 after Houthi rebels, linked to Iran, overthrew the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014. The government first fled to the south, then later into exile in Saudi Arabia. The United States militarily backed the Saudi campaign that pushed one of the most impoverished countries in region towards a dire humanitarian crisis.

The crisis turned into an all-out proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with civilians caught in its crosshairs. The killing of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, displacement of millions and a continuing famine make it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

The talks are seen as progress towards an end to these atrocities.

Yemeni and Saudi officials told the Associated Press news agency that a draft deal to revive a ceasefire that expired in October is meant to usher in a return to political talks.

The head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, shakes hands with Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al-Jaber at the Republican Palace in Sanaa, Yemen
Head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, shakes hands with Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber at the Republican Palace in Sanaa on April 9, 2023 [Saba News Agency/Handout via Reuters]

The officials also told the agency that the roadmap to peace would include a lifting of the Saudi-led coalition’s air and maritime blockade on Houthi-held areas, and an end to the Houthi siege of the city of Taiz.

Additionally, the Houthis offered Saudi Arabia security guarantees, while Saudi Arabia in turn promised to support widespread reconstruction efforts in Yemen, the officials added. The Houthis have carried out numerous attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations in retaliation to the bombing campaign led by Riyadh.

Sources earlier told the Reuters news agency that the Saudi-Houthi talks were also focused on a full reopening of Houthi-controlled ports and Sanaa airport, payment of wages for public servants, and a timeline for foreign forces to exit the country.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Monday hailed the development of the talks.

“What we’re seeing is different strands, different parties that have been in tension with each other, have been speaking,” he told the Associated Press news agency.

Ahead of the Saudi official’s arrival to Sanaa, a Houthi official said on Saturday the group received 13 detainees released by Saudi Arabia in exchange for a Saudi detainee freed earlier, ahead of the delayed wider prisoner exchange agreement.

That agreement, which the UN helped broker in March, involves the release of almost 900 prisoners from both sides, including Saudi troops.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies