UN urges Yemeni authorities to release ‘conflict related’ prisoners amid fears of Covid-19 outbreak

The country’s warring sides must adhere to prisoner exchange agreement reached in Sweden, UN says

United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, gestures during his visit, in Marib, Yemen March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Ali Owidha

The UN urged authorities in Yemen to release all “conflict-related” prisoners to avoid the spread of coronavirus in the country on Friday.

Yemen so far has no documented cases of the virus, known as Covid-19, that has infected more than 250,000 people world-wide.

The World Health Organisation is currently working alongside authorities in Yemen to stop the spread of the virus.

Several measures have been taken to curb the pandemic such as school closures, closing of border crossings and flight suspensions.

“Risks posed by COVID19 make even more urgent the need to release all conflict-related prisoners, as per the parties' obligations under the Prisoner Exchange Agreement,” the UN special envoy to the country, Martin Griffiths, said on Twitter.

The plan to implement a prisoner swap was agreed between the internationally recognised government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels during talks in Sweden more than a year ago.

It was seen as a major breakthrough during peace discussions in Stockholm.

Since then the UN has been trying to re-launch political negotiations to end the war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.

“The parties must take all measures to expedite these releases and allow people to return home safely,” Mr Griffiths said.

Yemen’s warring parties went on to agree to several confidence-building measures, including a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah.

Implementation of the tentative peace plan stumbled amid Houthi breaches of the ceasefire and a deep distrust between the sides.

It comes as intense fighting between the rebels and pro-government forces took place in northern Yemen this week, despite the UN warning the renewed battle could derail diplomatic efforts to end the five-year war.

In Al Jawf, pro-government forces retook Al Qaisein area in the northern district of Khab Walshaaf, killing 30 rebels and capturing 40 in a large offensive launched on Wednesday.

“At a time when the world is fighting a pandemic, the focus of the parties must shift away from fighting one another,” Mr Griffiths said in a statement.

"Peace is only possible in Yemen if and when the parties make the responsible decision to put Yemenis first and lay down the arms,” he said.

The intense fighting along with Yemen's shattered healthcare infrastructure and an already weakened population suggest the virus could wreak more chaos if it reached there.

The WHO said the health system is working at 50 per cent capacity and the coronavirus would “greatly overstretch it.”

Yemen’s five-year conflict has killed more than 100,000 and unleashed a humanitarian crisis.

Nearly 80 per cent of the population live off humanitarian aid while millions are on the brink of starvation, leaving them highly vulnerable to the disease.