Red Cross plane to fly from Sanaa to Riyadh for prisoner swap

Three-day process to exchange 887 captives will begin on Thursday, Yemeni official says

A screengrab of a video showing released Houthi prisoners on board a plane from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. Photo: Spa
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An International Committee of the Red Cross flight from Sanaa will take prisoners to Riyadh on Friday as part of a highly anticipated exchange set to begin on Thursday, a Yemeni official told The National.

Originally scheduled for Tuesday, the start of the swap was moved first to Friday and then back to Thursday after the process of interviewing and gathering information on the 877 captives was completed.

“On the first day of the exchange [Thursday], ICRC flights will transport detainees between Aden and Sanaa,” Yemen's Deputy Human Rights Minister Majed Fadhil, who is part of the negotiation committee, told The National on Tuesday.

Friday will see flights from Sanaa to Riyadh, Abhaa to Sanaa, and both ways between Mokha and Sanaa, while Saturday will see flights both ways between Marib and Sanaa, he added.

“The ICRC interviews every individual on every side and takes down all their details, verifies their identity and documents everything there is about them,” Mr Fadhil said.

“These people are in different areas and in several military locations and fronts. Therefore, there are major efforts being exerted to move and transport them safely.”

The ICRC's spokeswoman in the UAE, Jessica Moussan, told The National that operations may take place in the next few days.

“We are hoping that the upcoming detainee release operation in Yemen will take place in the next few days. However, considering the complexity of such an operation, we are not in a position to confirm any specific dates as the situation continues to evolve,” Ms Moussan said.

The ICRC is committed to its role as a neutral intermediary and is in constant communication with all sides to ensure the exchange is carried out in line with international humanitarian law, she said.

Teams on the ground are “working to facilitate the safe transfer and repatriation of detainees”, she said.

The prisoner exchange comes amid a push by Saudi Arabia — which leads a coalition to restore the internationally recognised government to power in Yemen — to revive a UN-brokered truce that expired in October.

As part of the truce and a permanent ceasefire, all prisoners on both sides will be released, The National previously reported.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al Jaber visited Sanaa at the weekend to discuss the details of an anticipated ceasefire that would end Saudi Arabia's military role in Yemen.

“Continuing the kingdom’s efforts to end the Yemeni crisis, and in support of the Saudi Initiative of 2021 to reach a comprehensive political solution in Yemen, I visit Sanaa along with a delegation from the brotherly Sultanate of Oman to stabilise the truce and ceasefire,” he tweeted on Monday night.

He said Saudi Arabia has always supported Yemen to achieve “security, stability and economic prosperity”.

Yemeni government sources previously told The National that a ceasefire would entail the merging of the two central banks, one based in Houthi-run Sanaa and the other in de facto capital Aden.

The prisoner swap beginning on Thursday will also involve the release of several prominent Yemeni detainees currently in Houthi jails.

They include Nasser Mansur Hadi, brother of Yemen's former president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, former defence minister Mahmoud Al Subaihi and Mohammad Saleh, brother of leader of National Resistance Tareq Saleh.

The prisoners also include 23 Saudis and three Sudanese civilians, Hamed Ghalib, of Yemen's National Resistance, which is involved in the negotiations with the Houthis, earlier told The National.

The UN, which had brokered last year's truce, welcomed the meetings in Sanaa.

“[The talks are] a welcome step towards the de-escalations of tensions in Yemen and the region. And we very much hope that it can contribute to the overall peace efforts,” UN Secretary General spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Monday.

UN special envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg had also called the talks the “closest Yemen has been to real progress towards lasting peace”.

Ahead of Mr Al Jaber's visit to Sanaa, Saudi Arabia released 13 Houthi prisoners in exchange for one Saudi detainee.

The Houthis have been at war with the Yemeni government since they took over the capital in 2014, prompting Saudi Arabia to intervene to restore the government to power.

Updated: April 11, 2023, 4:47 PM