Yemen hopes for breakthrough on prisoner swap deal before Ramadan

More than 2,000 names are to be exchanged between warring sides in bid to end brutal conflict

Houthis board a plane at Sayoun Airport, Yemen, after being released under a previous prisoner swap deal. Reuters
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Yemen’s internationally recognised government on Monday said it hoped for a breakthrough on a prisoner swap deal by the start of Ramadan.

Negotiations between the government and Houthi rebels are taking place in Switzerland. They are being chaired by UN envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"We are still in the early stages of the talks, we have revised some names and now we are exchanging lists," Majed Fadail, Yemen's deputy minister for human rights and member of the government prisoner swap committee, told The National.

There are 2,223 names of prisoners to be exchanged between the two sides, Mr Fadail said.

"We are demanding the release of 800 government and transitional forces, in exchange for 800 Houthi prisoners," he said.

For the talks to progress, the Houthi rebels must release 19 soldiers of the Saudi-led coalition, said the Yemeni official.

Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition at the request of the government to fight the Houthi rebels since 2015.

"Of those 19 soldiers, 16 are Saudi nationals and three are Sudanese, in addition to the former minister of defence, Maj Gen Mahmoud Al Subaihi, Gen Nasser Mansour Hadi, Gen Muhammad Adbullah Saleh, Tariq's brother, a member of the Presidential Council," he said.

The government committee is pushing for these names but there are some complications from the Houthi side, Mr Fadail said.

If these people are released, the government will immediately set free the requested Houthi prisoners, he said.

"We have accepted the terms of the Houthis but the militias are difficult to deal with and they prolong things," he said. "But we hope with the upcoming of the holy month of Ramadan we hope to see some progress."

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels are "refusing to release detained journalists and to talk or even discuss this matter in the ongoing negotiations", he said.

The talks started on Saturday and are set to last for 11 days.

Last week, Mr Grundberg urged both sides to “engage in serious and forthcoming discussions to agree on releasing as many detainees as possible".

“I urge the parties to fulfil the commitments they made, not just to each other but also to the thousands of Yemeni families who have been waiting to be reunited with their loved ones for far too long,” he added.

The prisoner exchange deal is part of a UN-brokered agreement that was announced in 2018 as part of the Stockholm deal. It ended months of violence over the vital Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The last major prisoner exchange was in October 2020 in which more than 1,000 detainees from both sides were released.

Updated: March 13, 2023, 4:23 PM