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Yemen hails prisoner swap, urges Houthis to comply

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden and AFP

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Hadi Haig (centre), Yemeni government official of the prisoner swap committee, attends a meeting to discuss a prisoner swap deal between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in Amman on January 17th, 2019. [Khalil Mazraawi/AFP]

Yemeni government officials on Tuesday (February 18th) hailed a large-scale prisoner exchange agreement forged with the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) during a weeklong meeting in the Jordanian capital Amman.

The deal, announced Sunday, is the first large-scale prisoner exchange agreement since the start of the five-year war.

In a joint statement, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross called it "a step towards the fulfilment of the parties' commitment to the phased release of all conflict-related detainees according to the Stockholm Agreement".

The number of prisoners to be released was not specified, and neither was the timing, though the two sides had agreed to exchange some 15,000 detainees under the terms of the UN-mediated deal brokered in Sweden in 2018.

"This is a purely humanitarian measure that must be implemented without delay," the Yemeni foreign ministry said in a social media post.

A spokesman for the Houthis in turn announced that "1,400 prisoners, including Saudis and Sudanese, will be freed".

UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths urged the two sides to move forward with the exchange they agreed on "with the utmost sense of urgency".

The committee overseeing the 2018 prisoner swap agreement plans to meet again in late March "to discuss further exchanges", the statement added.

Both sides have released hundreds of prisoners over the past months as part of sporadic swaps.

"Despite ongoing clashes, we saw that the parties have found common humanitarian ground that will allow many detainees to return to their loved ones," said Franz Rauchenstein, the ICRC's head of mission in Sanaa.

'Conditional on Houthis' compliance'

Yemeni officials who spoke with Al-Mashareq said the success of the prisoner exchange deal would be conditional on the Houthis' compliance with the terms of implementation, and warned them not to manipulate the prisoner lists.

As a first phase, Deputy Minister of Human Rights Majid Fadail said, 1,420 prisoners would be exchanged.

"The current mechanism states that once an agreement has been reached on those included in the first phase, lists will be exchanged," Fadail said in a statement.

"Once approved, co-ordination will be made for logistics to complete the exchange with the UN special envoy to Yemen and ICRC," he added. "After that, the exchange will take place."

Fadail said the implementation of the prisoner exchange deal would be conditional on the Houthis' swift compliance with the agreement.

Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez said he had doubts that the Houthis would comply with the terms of the agreement, but stressed the importance of releasing detainees from the Houthis' prisons.

He noted that some of the Houthis' prisoners have been tortured.

"The government's goal behind this deal is purely humanitarian; to alleviate prisoners' suffering and make their families happy after a long period of detention and forced disappearance," he said.

"The exchange will be completed based on releasing all prisoners from the two sides, in the event that the Houthis comply with the implementation of the Amman agreement," he added.

"With this deal, the UN special envoy to Yemen seeks to revive the Stockholm Agreement in an effort to invigorate the peace process and revive his and the UN's role in finding a peaceful solution to the Yemeni war," he said.

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