Yemen begins hard-won prisoner exchange



Released prisoners walk toward a plane of the International Committee of the Red Cross on the tarmac of an airport in Yemen's government-held city of Seiyun, in the eastern province of Hadramaut, as the war-torn country begins swapping 1,000 prisoners in a complex operation overseen by the ICRC. [AFP]

A hard-won prisoner exchange between the Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) got under way on Thursday (October 15th) with the departure of the first planeloads of released combatants.

The warring sides in Yemen's long conflict are to exchange 1,081 prisoners over two days under a deal struck in Switzerland last month, the largest number since the conflict erupted in 2014.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is handling the logistics of the complex two-day operation, said that five planes had so far delivered more than 300 combatants to cities in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

They travelled between Sanaa, the government-held city of Seiyun, and the Saudi city of Abha, it said.

UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths, who attended last month's talks in Switzerland, hailed the successful start of the operation.

"Today's release operation, led by the ICRC, is another sign that peaceful dialogue can deliver," the envoy said.

"I hope the parties will soon reconvene under UN auspices to discuss the release of all conflict-related prisoners and detainees."

First large-scale swap

The ICRC said its teams were stationed at the airports involved in the transfer, and had kitted out the detainees with clothes, hygiene supplies and money for their transport home.

"The ICRC has been conducting one-on-one interviews and medical checks with the detainees to be sure they want to be transported home and are healthy enough to do so," a spokeswoman said.

An AFP correspondent watched the first planes depart from the capital.

One of them was headed for the city of Abha in Saudi Arabia with released prisoners of war from the ranks of the coalition that supports the Yemeni government, Houthi officials said.

Those on board included 15 Saudis and four Sudanese.

The Yemeni government and the Houthis resolved to swap some 15,000 detainees as part of a peace deal brokered by the UN in Sweden back in 2018.

The two sides have since undertaken sporadic prisoner exchanges, but this week's planned swap would mark the first large-scale handover since the war erupted in 2014.

The exchange comes after the release Wednesday of two Americans held captive in Yemen, in an apparent swap for some 240 Houthi supporters who were allowed to return home after being stranded in neighbouring Oman.

The Houthis also sent back the remains of a third American who died in captivity.

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