Yemen’s warring sides completed a major, UN-brokered prisoner swap on Friday, officials said, a development that could revive the country’s stalled peace process after more than five years of conflict.
The internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels agreed last month in Switzerland to exchange 1,081 prisoners, including 15 members of the Saudi-led coalition supporting the government, in the largest swap of its kind in the five-year-old conflict.
“We’re very happy this operation has concluded with success, regardless of how challenging it was to put it together,” said Yara Khawaja, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen, which has overseen the swap.
She hoped it would help the warring sides overcome mistrust and restart more substantive negotiations “to end the suffering of millions of Yemenis”.
Planes carrying prisoners to be exchanged by Yemen's warring parties flew on Friday for the second day of the operation to return the men and build momentum for a new push to end a catastrophic war.
More than 700 prisoners were exchanged on Thursday as the operation started, said the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is managing the process.
An ICRC plane took off on Friday morning from Aden city, the temporary capital of the Yemeni government, ferrying detainees to the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa.
It was carrying 101 Houthi prisoners, an ICRC spokesperson said.
At the same time, an ICRC plane took off from Sanaa airport carrying 76 prisoners to Aden, the ICRC spokesperson said. Houthi-run Al Masirah TV said two planes would depart from Sanaa on Friday carrying around 150 prisoners in total.
Men descending from the plane when it landed in Aden prostrated and kissed the tarmac. Some embraced waiting friends and relatives.
The UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Thursday the swap was an "airlift of hope", adding that both parties remain in negotiations for a permanent ceasefire, which he hoped could be agreed by the end of the year.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said on Thursday that the swap "brings hope for peace-building".
The government and rebels had agreed in 2018 to free a total of 15,000 detainees to pave the way for political negotiations to end the conflict, but progress has been slow.
Yemen has been at war since the Houthis ousted the government from power in Sanaa in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene in 2015.
The prisoner swap began on Thursday, a day after the rebels released two Americans and the remains of a third who died while being held captive in exchange for the return of about 250 Houthi men from Oman.
Aid worker Sandra Loli was held for three years and businessman Mikael Gidada for about one year, Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to US President Donald Trump, told The Wall Street Journal.
The American who died was identified as Bilal Fateen.
A member in the Yemen government prisoner swap team told The National that the release of the American hostages was part of a deal struck with the rebels by the Saudi-led coalition and the US.