Yemen government and Houthi rebels exchange lists ahead of planned prisoner swap

Peace talks in Sweden are focused on confidence-building measures

CORRECTION / Representatives of the Huthi rebel delegation (L) and representatives of the Yemeni government's delegation (R) pose for a picture with representatives from the office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) during the ongoing peace talks on Yemen held at Johannesberg Castle in Rimbo, north of Stockholm, Sweden, December 11, 2018. Yemen's government and rival rebels announced plans for a mass prisoner swap, exchanging at least 15,000 names, as UN-brokered talks on ending the country's war entered their seventh day. / AFP / POOL / Claudio BRESCIANI
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Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels yesterday exchanged lists of prisoners they want released in a confidence-building measure aimed at advancing peace talks

The warring parties also set January 20 as a preliminary deadline for a prisoner swap.

The two delegations, which are currently engaged in United Nations brokered negotiations in Rimbo, Sweden, presented more than 15,000 names to the UN's Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths.

"We presented a list of 8,576 names of workers, political activists, youth, teachers, students, children, tribal figures, businessmen, women and doctors that have been forcibly detained and hidden in Houthi prisons," a government official told The National.

Houthi delegate Abdelqader Mourtada (L) and government delegate of Yemen Brigadier General Asker Zaeel shake hands at the negotiating table next to representatives from the office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) during the ongoing peace talks on Yemen held at Johannesberg Castle in Rimbo, north of Stockholm, Sweden, December 11, 2018.  / AFP / POOL / Claudio BRESCIANI

The number of captives held by the rebels exceeds 18,000, the official said.

Among the Yemenis believed to be detained in Houthi prisons, the official said there were 1700 minors and 90 women. The government's list also includes members of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s family and Bahai groups.

The government claims that 1200 of the prisoners held by the Houthis have been tortured, and that 132 have died in captivity.

“The delegation has asked for guarantees that the militias will end their brutal operations of abducting people from their homes and restricting the freedom of Yemenis,” the official said.


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Hadi Haig, who heads the government's prisoner swap committee, told The National on Monday that the deal would be carried out in stages, adding that it could take up to 48 days before all prisoners were exchanged.

In the coming weeks, the government and rebels are expected to exchange information concerning the fate of the detained, before agreeing to a final list of prisoners to be released.

The government is hoping rebels will demonstrate goodwill by releasing some high-profile prisoners before talks end on Friday. Former minister of defence Gen Mahmood Al Soubaihi,  Maj Gen Naser Mansour Hadi, who is the brother of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, and the leader of Yemen's Islamist Al Islah party, Mohammed Qahtan are among those held in Houthi prisons. They have been detained since 2015.


Read more: Accounts of prison torture forces Houthi leader to investigate


"I hope that the Houthis are serious about this agreement and will stick to the deal because this issue has a huge impact on thousands of lives, not only on the detainees but also on their families who are waiting to hear about the fate of their loved ones," Yemen's Minister of Agriculture, Othman Hussein Faid Mujali, told The National.

The Yemeni official, who said rebels are continuing to abduct and detain hundreds of victims, urged them to stop kidnappings immediately, describing the abuses as a breach of humanitarian law.

UN-led talks in the Swedish town of Rimbo entered their sixth day on Tuesday. The consultations have so far side-stepped discussions on a political transition, focusing instead on a prisoner swap, the reopening of Sanaa airport and securing UN administration of the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah.

An exterior view of Johannesberg Castle, where peace talks on Yemen are expected to take place, in Rimbo, north of Stockholm, Sweden, December 4, 2018. TT News Agency/Janerik Henriksson via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. SWEDEN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SWEDEN

The prisoner exchange is expected to be implemented by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The prisoners will be flown out of two airports, Seyoun in central Yemen and rebel-held Sanaa.

"The ICRC will act as a neutral intermediary between the parties and provide technical and, if needed, logistical support to facilitate the transfer and release [of captives]," the organisation's spokeswoman Jesscia Moussan El Zarif told The National.

“We hope that the implementation of the agreement will bring comfort to many families who have lost contact or have been separated from their loved ones due to the conflict,” she said.

Ms El Zarif clarified that the ICRC is only facilitating the release and transfer of prisonsers and has no control over who will be released.