Houthi rebels agree prisoner swap deal with Yemen government

Expectation that 600 captives held since start of 3½-year civil war in Yemen will be freed

A  Yemeni woman holds a placard at an anti-war rally in front of the UN offices in Sana’a. Photograph: Yahya Arhab

A Yemeni woman holds a placard at an anti-war rally in front of the UN offices in Sana’a. Photograph: Yahya Arhab

 

Yemen’s Saudi-sponsored government and Houthi rebels have achieved a breakthrough during their first direct talks in years by agreeing on a prisoner exchange.

Details are being negotiated but all 600 captives held since the beginning of Yemen’s 3½- year civil war are expected to be released.

Government delegation member Mohamed al-Amiri said the sides were discussing “operational mechanisms that would determine the date and place of the releases”, to take place in stages, in the coming months. The swap could free high-ranking figures held by the Houthis including former defence minister and relatives of president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Face-to-face discussions in the rural village of Rimbo, Sweden, in themselves a breakthrough, began on Sunday after three days of indirect talks involving a shuttle between the warring sides by UN mediator Martin Griffiths.

He said current discussions were meant to focus on confidence-building measures and de-escalation rather than reaching a political settlement. Peace talks could come later.

Plight of civilians

This round of talks had originally been set for the end of this month but was advanced due to the rapidly deteriorating situation of civilians, who face not only bombs and bullets but also a lack of water, food, fuel and medical supplies. Some 57,000 people have been killed in fighting and 85,000 children have died of hunger and disease.

No progress has been reached on two existential issues: the airport at Sana’a, the capital, and Hodeidah port. Both are held by the Houthis but partially blockaded by the Saudis, and are transit points for aid to Yemen’s heavily populated areas.

The airport has been closed and bombed since the Saudi-Emirati coalition, which controls Yemen’s airspace, launched its campaign against the Houthis in March 2015. The Houthis reject the government demand that the airport should be used only for domestic flights and that the international airport should be at Aden, which is under Saudi and Emirati rule. Flights arriving from abroad en route to Sana’a would land and be inspected at Aden.

The UN has proposed a ceasefire deal involving Houthi withdrawal from Hodeidah port and joint Houthi-government control with UN supervision. The government seeks to retake the port but would accept UN supervision; the Houthis have argued it could come under the UN if the Saudis halted air strikes.

Humanitarian aid

As 80 per cent of imports and 70 per cent of humanitarian aid flow through Hodeidah, UN agencies say 22 million of Yemen’s 28 million people could face famine if port operations halt or facilities are damaged

The delegations have also discussed easing fighting around Taiz, where 200,000 civilians are trapped and caught in turf battles between al-Qaeda and other jihadi factions.

US congressional and European governmental pressure to end the war has increased since the murder in October of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consultate in Istanbul by a team loyal to crown prince Mohamed bin Salman.

However, as Trump administration hawks oppose ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition, the Yemeni government could insist on Houthi disarmament and withdrawal from Hodeidah and Sana’a as the price for ending the war, demands the rebels reject.