Houthis plan prisoner exchange between rebel and pro-Saudi forces

Ramadan-timed deal may swap 1,400 rebel fighters for 823 Saudi-led coalition detainees

Yemen's Houthis announced on Monday plans for a mass prisoner swap between rebel and pro-Saudi forces ahead of the opening of a peace conference in Riyadh.

Houthi prisoner affairs chief Abdul Qader al-Mortada said on Twitter the deal would free 1,400 rebel fighters in exchange for 823 detainees held by the Saudi-led coalition. Yemen's ex-defence minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi and a brother of Saudi-sponsored president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi could be among those included.

Mr Hadi's envoy to the talks on a prisoner swap, Hadi Haig, said however that discussions continue and the UN would be informed when agreement was reached. A senior UN official confirmed no deal had been concluded.

There is moral pressure on the sides to agree to terms in coming days. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins on Friday, is also a period of truce and peacemaking.


Prisoner releases and ceasefires often take place during Ramadan and warring parties are encouraged to honour this centuries-old tradition.

Humanitarian truce

In response to a call from UN envoy Hans Grundberg for a humanitarian truce, the Houthis on Saturday – the seventh anniversary of the Saudi Emirati intervention in Yemen – suspended for three days strikes on Saudi Arabia. They offered to cease all attacks if the Saudis halt air strikes and lift the blockade of Houthi-held ports and airports.

Houthi political leader Mahdi al-Mashat said Riyadh, which has rejected these conditions, “must prove its seriousness by responding to a ceasefire, lifting the siege and expelling foreign forces from our country. Then peace will come and it will be time to talk about political solutions in a calm atmosphere away from any military or humanitarian pressure.”

The brief suspension followed a spike in attacks which prompted UN head Antonio Guterres to condemn both sides, urge restraint and call on them to “urgently reach a negotiated settlement to end the conflict”.

Missiles and drones

Last Friday, the Houthis unleashed missiles and drones which ignited a huge fire at Jeddah’s oil tank depot near the Formula One racecourse and struck oil refineries in Ras Tanura and Rabigh and vital facilities in Riyadh. The Saudi air force retaliated with attacks on Sana’a and Hodeidah port, killing eight.

The Houthis have refused to attend the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation peace conference in Riyadh unless the venue is changed to a neutral country, since Saudi Arabia and the Emirates intervened in 2015 in Yemen’s civil conflict to restore Mr Hadi as president.

The 500 invitees include Mr Hadi, representatives of the secessionist Transitional National Council and the National Resistance, tribal leaders, UN and US envoys to Yemen, and ambassadors.

The war has killed 377,000 Yemenis, made 80 per cent of Yemen’s 30 million people dependent on foreign aid, rendered four million homeless, and devastated the poorest country in the region.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times