Yemeni gov't, Houthis begin to swap over 1,000 prisoners

(Xinhua) -- The Yemeni government and Houthi militia on Thursday began a long-awaited large swap of prisoners as a major breakthrough in peace efforts. The UN Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths hailed that "I welcome the start of the prisoners release as agreed by the parties in September in Switzerland and in line with commitments made in Stockholm."

"Today's release operation, led by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is another sign that peaceful dialogue can deliver. I congratulate the families who will soon be welcoming their long-awaited loved ones," he said. Griffiths also hoped the Yemeni warring parties will soon reconvene under the UN auspices to discuss the release of all conflict-related prisoners and detainees.

According to the deal reached in Switzerland last month, a total of 1,081 war prisoners will be released on Thursday and Friday. The freed included 681 Houthi members and 400 soldiers from the government forces and their allied Saudi-led coalition, including 15 Saudis and four Sudanese. The ICRC said in a statement that it "will return more than 1,000 prisoners in connection with the conflict in Yemen, some to their places of origin and others to their countries of origin, in the largest operation of its kind during the war lasting for more than five years."

Hadi Haij, the head of the government prisoner file, was quoted as saying that the government forces released on Thursday a total of 221 Houthi detainees in return for 221 government soldiers, reported the pro-government Almasdar Online. He said the second batch of prisoner swap would be carried out on Friday. The ICRC plane carrying the freed government soldiers arrived in the government-held Sieyun city in the southeast of the country afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Houthi-run al-Masirah TV reported the arrival of three ICRC planes in the capital Sanaa, carring released Houthi militants. Houthi sources at Sanaa airport told Xinhua that one plane came from Sieyun and the other two planes came from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported the arrival of ICRC plane in a Saudi airport. It said the plane coming from Sanaa airport carried 15 Saudis and four Sudanese.

A Yemeni government official told Xinhua that a total of 710 prisoners, including 470 Houthis, 221 government soldiers, 15 Saudi soldiers and four Sudanese soldiers were released on Thursday. However, both warring parties have made no official confirmations yet on the released number. Both airports were heavily crowded by the families awaiting their beloved ones. The freed were highly greeted at Sieyun and Sanaa airports.

The two warring parties have held some 15,000 detainees. The swap was the first major breakthrough in peace efforts led by the United Nations since the warring parties first reached prisoner swap deal in Stockholm in 2018. The Thursday' swap rises hopes of more exchange of prisoners that would pave the way for a comprehensive cease-fire and resumption of peace talks.

The swap came a day after the Houthis released two U.S. hostages and handed over the remains of a third U.S. citizens in a deal mediated by Oman that saw the allowing of 200 injured Houthi members to return home after receiving treatment abroad as part of trust-building measures agreed upon in the agreement reached in Stockholm in 2018, according to the Houthi-run al-Masirah television.

Yemen has been mired in civil war since late 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized control of several northern provinces and forced the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi out of the capital Sanaa. The Saudi-led coalition intervened in the Yemen conflict in March 2015 to support Hadi's government.

The war has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced 4 million and pushed the country to the brink of famine.