Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Monday released hundreds of detained Yemeni nationals in a unilateral move welcomed by the United Nations envoy, who said he hoped that it could spark greater progress on a prisoner exchange deal outlined in peace talks in Stockholm last year.
The operation, facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), resulted in the release of 290 Yemenis from Houthi-controlled Sanaa to their homes.
"We are always ready to act as a neutral facilitator in the release of detainees when we receive a request from the parties to the conflict and hope that this operation opens the door to further releases to bring comfort to families awaiting reunification with their loved ones,” ICRC’s head of delegation in Yemen, Franz Rauchenstein, said in a statement.
Two of the released detainees were transferred to their areas of origin by Yemeni Red Crescent Society ambulances, the organisation said in a statement
“We held confidential conversations with all detainees to listen to any concern they might have, make sure that they had been in touch with their families and collect the necessary information to follow up on their case if needed," ICRC’s head of the protection department in Yemen, Robert Zimmerman said in a statement.
The arrangement, brokered through UN-led peace talks in Sweden last December, is seen as a crucial confidence building measure to help Yemen’s internationally recognised government and Houthi rebels negotiate a political settlement to end the country’s devastating war.
Each side presented a list of up to 7,000 detainees to be freed. Implementation of the deal, reached in Sweden last December, has stalled due to lack of confidence between the two sides.
The prisoner exchange implementation also stalled as the two sides struggled to agree on its implementation during talks in Amman, Jordan earlier this year.
Talks in Amman verified the names of around 15,000 prisoners to be exchanged by both sides but thousands of detainees remain under rebel control.
ICRC said it views the development as a “positive step that will hopefully revive the release, transfer and repatriation of conflict-related detainees” in accordance to the Stockholm Agreement.
The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, welcomed the development and called on both sides to “ensure the safe return of the released detainees to their homes.”
“I hope this step will lead to further initiatives that will facilitate the exchange of all the conflict-related detainees as per the Stockholm Agreement,” Mr Griffiths said.
“I also welcome the previous steps taken by the Government of Yemen and the Arab Coalition that led to the release of Yemeni minors and supported their reintegration with their families,” the UN envoy said.
Mr Griffiths called on Yemen’s warring sides to meet at the “nearest opportunity to resume discussion on further exchange.”
The development comes as a ceasefire deal in Hodeidah, reached during peace talks in Sweden, hangs in the balance.
The Hodeidah deal includes a troop withdrawal from the key Red Sea ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa.
It has yet to progress due to breaches by the Houthis and disagreements between the two sides over the redeployment of their troops. Yemeni government officials accuse the rebels of violating international laws by not committing to the deal.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pressed the warring sides to focus their effort on implementing the crucial agreement aimed to end the conflict.
Saudi Arabia is leading the Arab Coalition that has been fighting in Yemen to restore the internationally recognised government since 2015, after the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa in 2014.
Col Turki Al Maliki, coalition spokesman, said on Monday that the rebels are continuing to violate the deal reached in Sweden by attacking neighbouring Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles and drones.
"We support the UN’s efforts in achieving a political process in Yemen and to implement the Stockholm agreement," Col Al Maliki said, adding that the rebels are "not serious" about finding a peaceful solution to the war.
The agreement reached in Sweden was widely seen as Yemen’s best opportunity to end a conflict the UN says has killed thousands of people and has pushed millions on the brink of famine.