Yemen rebels and government complete prisoner exchange

Scores of prisoners have been freed on the last of a three-day exchange of nearly 900 detainees.

Yemeni rebels and government forces have freed scores of prisoners, including a woman, on the last of a three-day exchange of more than 800 detainees, boosting hopes of ending their protracted war.

Five flights carrying nearly 200 detainees from both sides flew between the Houthi rebel-held capital of Sanaa and the government-controlled northern city of Marib.

The operation “concluded successfully” on Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

The ICRC said this brought the number of prisoners freed over the three days to 869 under a deal agreed to in Switzerland last month.

Among those exchanged on Sunday was one woman, Samira March, who government forces detained five years ago and accused of organising explosions that killed dozens, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“She was freed in exchange for the release of journalists held by the Houthis,” government negotiator Majed Fadail confirmed to AFP news agency.

The four journalists had been sentenced to death by the Iran-aligned Houthis.

Yemen prisoners freed
A girl runs towards her freed father after a plane carrying recently released prisoners lands at Sanaa International Airport [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The ICRC’s Fatima Sator, who has travelled on the flights with the released prisoners, told Al Jazeera it is “such a beautiful moment full of happiness and joy that we can witness at the airport each time.”

“These operations are all about reunifying families,” Sator said. “This week nearly 900 detainees were reunified with their families, which means thousands of people will be able to spend Eid together this year,” she said.

Some of those released on Sunday were taken to the Red Cross aircraft in wheelchairs. Those boarding at Marib were given plastic bags containing food for when the daily Ramadan fast was over.

At the airport in Sanaa, Houthi fighters staged a ceremonial dance with swords to greet their comrades.

On Friday, 318 prisoners were transported on four flights between Sanaa and government-controlled Aden, reuniting detainees with their families just before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

On Saturday, 357 detainees took flights between the Saudi city of Abha and Sanaa. Saudis were among the prisoners freed.

It is not known how many prisoners each side still has.

Yemen prisoner swap
A freed prisoner reacts as he arrives at Sanaa airport amid a prisoner swap between two sides in the Yemen conflict [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Confidence building

The Houthis seized Sanaa in 2014, prompting the Saudi-led intervention the following year. Hundreds of thousands have died in the conflict, which triggered a major humanitarian crisis.

A United Nations-brokered ceasefire that started in April 2022 has sharply reduced casualties. The truce expired in October, but fighting has largely remained on hold.

Marib governorate, an oil-rich region, saw some of the most bitter fighting in the last two years.

The city of Marib is the last northern bastion of the government, which is now based in the southern city of Aden.

The prisoner exchange, the largest since more than 1,000 prisoners were freed in October 2020, is a confidence-building measure coinciding with an intense diplomatic push to end the war as it nears its nine-year mark.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia, which leads the military coalition against the Houthis, now accepts that its prolonged military campaign will not defeat the rebel forces.

The exchange and the truce negotiations come a month after Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties, sparking a wave of rapprochement across the region.

A Saudi delegation has travelled to rebel-held Sanaa to push for a more durable ceasefire, even as the Houthis generally object to Saudi mediation, insisting the neighbouring kingdom has played a central role in the conflict.

The delegation left on Thursday without a finalised truce, but with plans for more talks that the Saudi foreign ministry said on Saturday would take place “as soon as possible”.

Houthi political chief Mahdi al-Mashat said the next round of talks with Saudi Arabia would start after Eid al-Fitr and is expected on April 21, Yemen’s Saba news agency reported.

Experts say Saudi Arabia likely seeks security guarantees from Iran, including stopping Houthi drone and missile attacks on Saudi territory.

The UN considers Yemen’s conflict a humanitarian disaster that has pushed the country to the brink of famine. The war has taken a heavy toll on infrastructure in the country.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies