The Western and Saudi-backed Yemeni government of president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the rebel Houthis, initiated a prisoner swap deal on October 15, Thursday. The development is being seen as a significant confidence building measure between the two warring sides. The news comes just a day after reports of another prisoner swap brokered by Oman, in which the Houthis released two US nationals in exchange for around 250 of their fighters.
The two Yemeni factions had agreed to a prisoner swap deal in Switzerland last month, involving 1,081 prisoners, including 15 Saudi nationals. The Houthi official in charge of prisoner affairs, Abdel Kader Mortaza, indicated in a tweet that the prisoner swap deal will be undertaken over Thursday and Friday, and that both parties have completed preparations to implement the deal. The International Committee of the Red Cross also confirmed that five planes carrying approximately 300 fighters of both parties have flown to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, under Houthi control, the Hadi government-controlled city of Seiyun, and the Saudi city of Abha. More flights are expected to transport the remaining prisoners to their respective parties today.
The move has been welcomed by UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, who expressed hope that the warring sides will soon meet again and enter UN-brokered talks to conclude future prisoner swap deals. He added that the peaceful dialogue has been effective in achieving progress against violence and war. Earlier, the two sides had agreed to a prisoner swap deal involving over 15,000 prisoners as part of a broader peace deal brokered by the UN during talks held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2018.
The US also welcomed the release of two of its citizens. US National Security Advisor said that the mortal remains of a third individual, Bilal Fateen, who died in captivity, were handed over to Oman and will be soon repatriated to the US. The two US citizens who were released, humanitarian aid worker Sandra Loli and businessman Mikael Gidada, were reportedly held captive by the Houthis for three years and one year, respectively. In exchange, Oman sent two flights to Sanaa carrying 250 Houthi and allied fighters. Some of them were being held captive in Oman and other countries, while the rest had traveled abroad for medical treatment.
The prisoner swap deal also included the delivery of a consignment of much-needed medical aid to war-ravaged Yemen from Oman. Yemen is reeling under a healthcare and humanitarian crisis due to multiple outbreaks of diseases like cholera. Incessant fighting and violence over the last six years have ravaged the country. In 2014, the Houthi rebels dislodged the Hadi government from the capital Sanaa and captured most of northern Yemen. A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, backed by western powers, intervened in March 2015, in an attempt to restore Hadi and the territories taken over by the Houthis. More than 100,000 Yemenis died in the conflict and war that ensued, many of whom died of causes related to famine, starvation, displacement, and disease. A significant number of casualties were due to Saudi air raids. The war has also rendered 24 million Yemenis, or nearly 80% of the total population, dependent on international humanitarian aid for survival. 10 million are currently at risk of dying of famine. The UN has called the humanitarian situation in Yemen “the worst humanitarian crisis” in the world right now.