More than 1,000 political prisoners captured during the Yemen civil war began to be released on Thursday in a massive prisoner swap negotiated over the past two years and largely overseen by the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross.
The exchange led to scenes of celebration and triumph inside Yemen. UN diplomats said they hoped the bulk of the swap would be completed over the next two days.
The exchange has involved a complex compilation of agreed lists of names, logistical planning, and the slow build-up of trust between the parties in the six-year civil war. The diplomats hope some of the trust could yet be used to open the way for talks on an interim national joint declaration and ceasefire.
The UN has been struggling to negotiate a ceasefire between Houthi rebels, initially based in the north, and a Saudi-backed and UN-recognised government.
In total, seven flights took place on five planes, and more than 700 detainees were released during the first day’s more than 12-hour long operation. Two planes left Abha in Saudi Arabia bound for Sana’a, Yemen’s capital; two more carried detainees within Yemen from Seiyun airport, Hadhramaut, to Sana’a; and three flights departed Sana’a, two to Seiyun and one to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
The released Houthis arrived in Sana’a to a military red carpet reception, kissing the ground, punching the air and generally being greeted as returning heroes.
The ICRC gave no breakdown of the precise number of people being exchanged, but it is understood that 1,081 prisoners were released, the bulk of them Houthis.
Local media at both airports heard prisoners’ stories of beatings and torture, as well as claims that they had been used as human shields, or captured despite being civilians.
The ICRC Near East regional director, Fabrizio Carboni, said he had received many questions from prisoners, their families and others asking whether the transfer “was really happening”. He responded on Twitter: “I am more than happy to answer that the release operation has started in Yemen. This has been in the making for two years. It is a long process that will last for days, but it will end with families reuniting and that is what matters.”
The concept of a large-scale prisoner swap was first agreed at talks held in Stockholm nearly two years ago, but progress was thwarted as both sides argued over the numbers to be released, the status of mercenaries, and whether those listed for release were in reality in detention.
A final agreement was struck in September in Montreux, Switzerland, but then the individuals had to be questioned to ensure that they wished to leave.
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, said he hoped the parties would now…