More than 1,000 political prisoners captured during the Yemen civil war began to be released on Thursday in a massive prisoner swap negotiated over the past two years and largely overseen by the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross.
The exchange led to scenes of celebration and triumph inside Yemen. UN diplomats said they hoped the bulk of the swap would be completed over the next two days.
The exchange has involved a complex compilation of agreed lists of names, logistical planning, and the slow build-up of trust between the warring parties involved in the six-year civil war.
The diplomats hope some of some trust could yet be used to open the way for talks on an interim national joint declaration and ceasefire.
The UN has been struggling to negotiate a ceasefire between Houthi rebels, initially based in the north, and a Saudi backed and UN recognised government.
Five plane loads of prisoners, some of whom were still suffering wounds, were transferred on Thursday. There were 19 prisoners – 15 Saudis, and four Sudanese – and they were flown out of Sana’a, Yemen’s Houthi controlled capital, on a plane bound for King Salman air base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
A second flight from Sana’a, carrying Yemenis, flew internally within Yemen to Seiyun airport in Hadhramaut, which is held by the UN recognised government. Another flight carrying more than 100 Houthis was going in the opposite direction, from Seiyun to Sana’a.
At the same time a group of captured Houthis were flown into Sana’a in two flights from Abha international airport, Saudi Arabia. The prisoners arrived to a military red carpet reception, kissing the ground, punching the air and generally greeted as returning liberated heroes.
The bulk of the prisoner exchanges were between fighters backing the rival Yemeni governments. As many as 500 Yemeni prisoners were due to be exchanged today, with a further 450 on Friday.
The ICRC gave no breakdown of the precise number of people being exchanged, but it is understood 1,081 prisoners are being released, the bulk of them Houthis.
Local media at both airports heard prisoners’ stories of beatings and torture, as well as claims that they had been used as human shields, or captured, even though they were civilians.
The ICRC Near East regional director, Fabrizio Carboni, said he had received many questions from prisoners, their families and others asking whether the transfer “was really happening”. He responded on Twitter: “I am more than happy to answer that the release operation has started in Yemen. This has been in the making for two years. It is a long process that will last for days, but it will end with families reuniting and that is what matters.”
The concept of a large-scale prisoner swap was first agreed at talks held in Stockholm nearly two years ago, but progress was thwarted as both sides argued over the numbers to be released, the status of mercenaries, and whether those listed for release were in reality in detention.
A final agreement was struck in September in Montreaux, Switzerland, but then the individuals had to be questioned to ensure they wished to leave.
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, said he hoped the parties would now realise that “peaceful dialogue can deliver”. He urged the two sides to reconvene to discuss the release of all conflict-related prisoners.
The swap takes place against the backdrop of continued fighting, but in a policy brief the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) urged the EU to engage proactively with the Houthis, pointing out the Iranian supported movement controlled a third of the country’s territory in which two-thirds of the Yemeni population lived.
The ECFR warned that hardline factions were in the ascendancy in the Houthi movement; they were willing to use state repression and were convinced that Saudi Arabia could be defeated militarily. But the ECFR paper suggests the Houthis might not seek control of the whole country, providing an opening for talks.
The paper also suggests “the possibility of a new US administration under Joe Biden, [which] could provide an opening for a joint US-European push, given the widespread desire among US Democrats to end the war and re-energise diplomatic pathways out of conflicts in the Middle East”.
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor