DUBAI (Dispatches) -- The warring sides in Yemen’s long conflict have agreed to exchange 1,081 prisoners, the United Nations mediator said on Sunday following talks in Switzerland.
The Saudi-backed side and Yemen’s Houthi fighters and their allies in the Yemeni army resolved to swap some 15,000 detainees as part of a peace deal brokered by the UN in Stockholm back in 2018.
The two sides have since undertaken sporadic prisoner exchanges, but the release of over 1,000 prisoners -- if it materializes -- would mark the first large-scale handover since the war erupted in 2014.
"I am personally extremely pleased to be here to announce that you have reached a very important milestone,” UN envoy Martin Griffiths said at the end of the talks at the Swiss village of Glion, overlooking Lake Geneva.
Griffiths hailed the decision to release the prisoners as the largest such operation during Yemen’s conflict.
He also congratulated the two warning sides for renewing their "commitment to the full implementation of the Stockholm agreement”.
Yemen’s Al-Masirah TV channel quoted an official source in capital Sanaa as confirming a deal had been reached and that both parties "express their commitment to implement the agreement”.
"What matters to us is implementing the deal, not only signing it,” senior Houthi commander Muhammad Ali al-Houthi had tweeted on Saturday.
Muhammad al-Hadhrami, the Saudi-backed foreign minister for
former Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, welcomed the deal as a "humanitarian” breakthrough.
Dr Elisabeth Kendall, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Pembroke College, said the deal was an "important trust-building measure” amid efforts to end the Yemen conflict, but one that would create more animosity if it faltered.
"This step has to be viewed positively, given how polarized the warring sides now are and how intractable the conflict has become,” she told AFP.
"But there are several reasons to be wary... We have been here several times before. Prisoner swaps are agreed, then they come to nothing and those impacted end up even more frustrated and angry.”
Sources on both sides had told AFP Saturday that a deal had been reached for the prisoner exchange, indicating it was to be implemented within two weeks.
The agreement includes the release of 681 Yemeni fighters and 400 Saudi mercenaries, including Saudis and Sudanese, a member of the Hadi delegation told AFP.
The talks began on September 18, and had been aimed at securing the release of 1,420 prisoners, including Hadi’s brother.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is to oversee the return of detainees to their families. Fabrizio Carboni, head of the ICRC’s Middle East and Near East operations, described the agreement as "a very positive step”.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the Yemen conflict, which has sparked what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Many observers say Saudi Arabia is looking for an exit from the quagmire in Yemen after failing to defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi to power, more than five years into the aggression.
The kingdom is now seeking to stop Yemen’s retaliatory attacks on its own territory.
Despite its vicious air campaign, Saudi Arabia has been unable to dislodge the Houthis from most of Yemen’s population centers, including the capital, Sanaa. Its main international ally, the United Arab Emirates, began scaling back its involvement in the war last year.
According to Western media reports, the Saudis have held secret talks with the Houthis in recent months.
Gone is the hope of returning Hadi to Sanaa, British daily the Economist wrote in April. "Now the kingdom’s goal is to stop Houthi missile strikes on its own territory,” it said.
"Cynics doubt that compassion is truly motivating Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni nation. For years its bombs have hit hospitals, houses and schools in Yemen—often, it seemed, on purpose. Rather, the war is turning and the Saudis are losing heart,” the paper added.
According to the Economist, the Saudi intervention in Yemen began "as a vanity project for Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince, who sought to flex his muscles in the face of rivals.
The heir to the Saudi throne, it said, "is now looking at a quagmire that is diverting resources at a time of plummeting oil revenues.”
"Houthi attacks on the kingdom threaten its reputation for stability. Their missiles have struck oil pipelines and targeted the capital, Riyadh.”