Yemen peace talks progress hailed despite prisoner swap delay.


The anticipated prisoner exchange between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised government, which was scheduled for Wednesday, has been delayed. However, both sides have expressed optimism about the latest peace talks aimed at ending the country’s nine-year conflict. Delegations from Saudi Arabia and Oman are currently holding talks with Houthi officials in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Despite the delay in the prisoner exchange, several parties to the conflict have praised the progress of the talks.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, tweeted on Monday that the talks are intended to “stabilise the truce and ceasefire, support the prisoner exchange process and explore venues of dialogue between Yemeni components to reach a sustainable, comprehensive political solution in Yemen”. Meanwhile, Yemen’s Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani welcomed the talks, tweeting that the “atmosphere is more ready than ever to achieve peace”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which brokered the exchange, requested that the prisoner swap be postponed until April 14. Yemen’s Deputy Minister for Human Rights, Majid Fada’el, confirmed the delay in a tweet on Saturday. Omani and Saudi envoys arrived in Yemen on the same day to meet with the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat. He stated that his group seeks an “honourable peace” that would ensure Yemenis get “freedom and independence”, according to Houthi news agency SABA.

Yemen has been embroiled in conflict for years since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 after Houthi rebels, linked to Iran, overthrew the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014. The government first fled to the south, then later into exile in Saudi Arabia. The United States militarily backed the Saudi campaign that pushed one of the most impoverished countries in the region towards a dire humanitarian crisis. The crisis turned into an all-out proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with civilians caught in its crosshairs. The killing of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, displacement of millions, and a continuing famine make it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

The talks are seen as progress towards an end to these atrocities. Yemeni and Saudi officials told the Associated Press news agency that a draft deal to revive a ceasefire that expired in October is meant to usher in a return to political talks. The officials also told the agency that the roadmap to peace would include a lifting of the Saudi-led coalition’s air and maritime blockade on Houthi-held areas, and an end to the Houthi siege of the city of Taiz. Additionally, the Houthis offered Saudi Arabia security guarantees, while Saudi Arabia in turn promised to support widespread reconstruction efforts in Yemen. The Houthis have carried out numerous attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations in retaliation to the bombing campaign led by Riyadh.

Sources earlier told Reuters that the Saudi-Houthi talks were also focused on a full reopening of Houthi-controlled ports and Sanaa airport, payment of wages for public servants, and a timeline for foreign forces to exit the country. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric hailed the development of the talks on Monday, stating that “what we’re seeing is different strands, different parties that have been in tension with each other, have been speaking”.

Ahead of the Saudi official’s arrival in Sanaa, a Houthi official said on Saturday that the group had received 13 detainees released by Saudi Arabia in exchange for a Saudi detainee freed earlier, ahead of the delayed wider prisoner exchange agreement. That agreement, which the UN helped broker in March, involves the release of almost 900 prisoners from both sides, including Saudi troops.