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Yemeni government, Houthis celebrate major prisoner swap

The exchange and pending ceasefire deal could presage an end to the country's 8-year-war and humanitarian crisis.

Analysis | Middle East

SANA'A, Yemen — They hugged each other at Sana’a Airport. They were cheered in Aden. And at Aden Airport, a hero’s welcome was given to former defense minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi and Nasser Mansour Hadi, the brother of former President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi whom they both last saw in Aden more than eight years ago.

After Al-Subaihi escaped house arrest in Sana’a in March 2015 and joined former president Hadi in Aden in leading anti-Houthi forces, he was rearrested in Lahij along with Nasser Hadi on March 25, one day before Saudi Arabia launched its military intervention in Yemen on March 26.

UN Security Council adopted resolution 2216 eight years ago on April 14, 2014, which, among other things, called on the Houthis to "release the Minister for Defence [Al-Subaihi], all political prisoners and individuals under house arrest or arbitrarily detained, and end the recruitment of children."

Yemeni journalist and the director of Hona Aden Center, Anis Mansour, said this weekend's release of Al-Subaihi may finally change the UNSC’s stance toward the Houthi rebels.

"I think the UNSC's stance towards the Houthis may change, such as dropping its demands from the Houthis to withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict, relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions," Mansour told RS in a voice audio via Whatsapp. "The Council may start to consider the Houthis as a political party."

The release of 181 members of the UN-recognized government, including 16 Saudis, three Sudanese, Al-Subaihi, Hadi, and the brother and son of UAE-backed military commander Tarik Saleh, in exchange for 706 Houthi prisoners, took place Friday through Sunday under the auspices of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

Before Al-Subaihi and Hadi arrived in Aden, a video circulated on social media showing them shaking hands and hugging Houthi-appointed Prime Minister Abdel-Aziz bin Habtour and Parliamentary Speaker Yayha Al-Raee at Sana'a Airport and taking a group photo with other Houthi leaders, including Ali Al-Quhoom and Sultan Al-Samei.

Anis Mansour, who is a friend of Al-Subaihi and pinned a video of himself with Al-Subaihi on Twitter, said the Houthi officials' farewell of his friend "was a good picture, although it seems that in the first months of his captivity, he was subjected to torture."

At Aden Airport, footage captured the two high profile prisoners descending the steps from an ICRC plane, and acknowledging the crowd with a wave of their hands. Some in the crowd chanted: "We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you South," a slogan used by the Southern Transitional Council, or STC, that has demanded the secession of South Yemen from the North most of which is now ruled by the Houthi-led coalition, Ansarallah.

"I do not think that "Al-Subaihi will retire from the military corps,” Anis Mansour told RS, “but he will have an important and central role, although we fear that he will die because he possesses popular and tribal power."

At Sana’a Airport, meanwhile, the freed Houthi prisoners, who arrived from Aden, joined their welcoming crowds in performing Yemen's traditional Baraa dance

'Breakthrough prisoner exchange'

In a press release, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg "welcomed the start of the release operation and thanked the parties for their collaboration with his Office and ICRC to implement the plan agreed in March."

“This release operation comes at a time of hope for Yemen as a reminder that constructive dialogue and mutual compromises are powerful tools capable of achieving great outcomes," Grundberg said. 

He further advised the warring parties "to immediately and unconditionally release all arbitrarily detained individuals and to adhere to international legal standards in regards to detention and fair trials."

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also welcomed the "breakthrough prisoner exchange" in Yemen.

"The United States is proud to support this UN-led engagement, and we will continue to do all we can to help consolidate the truce that’s now been in effect for over one year, helping to set the conditions for a more enduring peace," Sullivan said in a statement.

U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Steven H. Fagin welcomed the prisoner exchange in a tweet and urged "the parties to the Yemen conflict to continue to engage positively and thank @ICRC_ye for its assistance in coordinating the release operation."

The European Union also welcomed the prisoner exchange. 

"This initial release of 887 detainees by the parties, in line with the agreement reached in Geneva last month, is a crucial step in the implementation of the 2018 Stockholm Agreement," the EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said in a statement

'Serious and positive' talks 

Omani and Saudi delegations arrived in the capital Sana’a on Saturday 8 April to negotiate a permanent ceasefire deal with Houthis and bring the over eight-year-old conflict to an end.

The Saudi delegation headed by the Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al Jaber is the first announced Saudi delegation to visit Sana'a since March 2015.

"The arrival of the Saudi ambassador to Sana’a is a public recognition that the kingdom wants to get out of the Yemen war," Anis Mansour told RS. "It also comes in line with the new Saudi policy of seeking peace in the region and focusing on economic projects according to Vision 2030."

In a  tweet, Al Jaber shared his photos with Houthi leaders in Sana’a, noting that his visit to the Yemeni capital was aimed at ending  the conflict in support of the Saudi peace initiative first put forth in 2021. 

The Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV, however, expressed anger at the ambassador's tweet, interpreting it as an attempt to depict the kingdom as a "mediator,” rather than as  a belligerent in the war that has devastated what was already the Arab world’s poorest country.

Riyadh, said Mansour, the journalist, is trying  "to escape legal responsibility for its war in Yemen and its repercussions, like compensations and reparations."

On the evening of April 13, the Saudi delegation left Sana’a after six days of talks with Houthi officials.

In a tweet after the Saudi departure, Houthi Chief Negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam characterized the Omani-mediated negotiations as "serious and positive." 

Hours after the arrival in the kingdom of 16 Saudi prisoners and three Sudanese held by the Houthis April 15th, the Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement saying, "The Saudi team held a number of meetings in Sana’a, which witnessed in-depth discussions on a number of issues related to the humanitarian situation; Including the release of all prisoners of war, reaching a cease-fire, and a comprehensive political solution in Yemen.”

These positive statements by the Saudis and the Houthis after their first public and direct talks in Sana’a are the concrete results of Oman’s mediation. Muscat also played a key mediating role in the recent normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran that was announced in Beijing earlier this month.

"The discussions were transparent, positive, and constructive," the Saudi statement read. "Due to the need for further discussions; these engagements will resume as soon as possible."

Houthi prisoners arrive at Sanaa airport during a prisoners exchange between Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. The Yemeni government and their rival Houthi rebels began on Friday a three-day prisoner exchange operation, which will transfer nearly 900 detainees between six airports in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
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