Saudi-backed Yemen government and Houthis agree to prisoner swap, UN hopes ceasefire to follow

Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels will exchange more than 1,000 prisoners, a landmark swap in a brutal five-year war. UN officials said that the exchange could pave the way for a ceasefire.

The exchange was agreed on Sunday, after ten days of talks in Switzerland. The Houthis will release 400 people, including 15 Saudis, and the Saudi-backed government will free 681 Houthi fighters, Reuters reported.

Yemen’s civil war has been ongoing since 2014, when the Iranian-aligned Houthis ousted Yemen’s government from power. The war intensified in 2015 when Saudi Arabia – backed by Western powers – intervened on behalf of the ousted government. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, and the Saudi blockading of Yemen’s ports triggered what the Norwegian Refugee Council called a “man-made famine of Biblical proportions.”

Once completed, the prisoner swap will be the largest single exchange of detainees since 2018. The warring parties agreed then to swap around 15,000 prisoners, but that deal has not been fully implemented, and prisoner exchanges since have been small and unilateral.

The Houthis last year freed 290 prisoners, and Saudi Arabia released 128. Smaller deals have been cut too, with the International Committee of the Red Cross organizing the release of six Saudis earlier this year.

UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said he hoped both sides build on the agreement and work toward a ceasefire. “Our overall aim at the moment is to bring an agreement on what we call a joint declaration which is a national ceasefire to end the war in Yemen. And accompanied by various measures to open up the ports and airports and roads so that people can start to live a little,” he told Reuters.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s aerial bombing campaign, the conflict has been locked in a military stalemate for years. The capital, Sanaa, remains in Houthi hands, as do most of the country’s population centers. Informal ceasefire talks have been underway between Riyadh and the Houthis since late last year, and both sides did pause fighting at several points since.

The peace, however, never lasted, and in a speech before the UN last week, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz said he wouldn not abandon Yemen until its people were free from “Iranian hegemony.” 

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