Yemen's warring sides agree to swap over 1,400 detainees

As several signed agreements by Yemeni warring sides still stumble, it's hard to predict if this major swap will be implemented amid rising tension in the wake of the downing of a Tornado jet in north Yemen.

al-monitor Detainees wait for their release by the Houthis at the central prison of Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 30, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

Feb 24, 2020

SANAA, Yemen — When Yemen's warring sides signed an agreement Feb. 16 in Jordan to swap more than 1,400 detainees under the auspices of the United Nations, questions arose about the parties’ commitment to its implementation. The agreement was seen as a major confidence-building step between the two sides.

The agreement comes in light of a military escalation in the northern al-Jawf province between the Saudi-backed forces and the Iran-aligned Houthis, raising concerns over the implementation of this long-delayed prisoner swap.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea announced in a Feb. 14 tweet the downing of a Tornado jet “on a hostile mission” using “advanced surface-to-air missiles.” In another tweet, Sarea said footage of the downing would be released.

Saudi-led coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki confirmed in a statement run by the Saudi state news agency Feb. 15 that a jet crashed while on a mission to support government forces.

The statement followed reports about several airstrikes targeting civilian houses in al-Masloub district of al-Jawf province, where the jet crashed, killing dozens of people.

The Houthis blamed the coalition for the airstrikes at the site of the jet crash. The rebel-run Ministry of Health said 35 civilians were killed, including 26 children, and 23 others wounded, including 18 children.

The United Nations humanitarian agency OCHA in Yemen confirmed the casualties, saying preliminary field reports indicate that “as many as 31 civilians were killed and 12 others injured in strikes that hit al-Hayjah area of Ala-Maslub district.”

UN groups in Yemen, UNICEF and Save the Children, condemned the attack without naming the perpetrator.

“My thoughts are with the children and their families impacted by the attack in Al-Jawf," tweeted Sara Nyanti, UNICEF representative in Yemen. “This is a shocking reminder that children in Yemen carry the heaviest burden of the conflict.”

Following the airstrikes, the coalition said in a statement that “a combat search and rescue mission was conducted in the area of the [Tornado jet] crash,” adding, “Possibility of collateral damage during the search and rescue operation was reported.”

Meanwhile, the coalition claimed Feb. 16 that the crew ejected before the warplane crashed, but that Houthis opened fire on them. Their fate remains unknown. The coalition said in a statement it “holds the terrorist al-Houthi militia responsible for the lives and well-being of the Tornado aircrew.”

Local news outlets published images shared by Houthi activists on social media of one of the pilots with blood on his face. Al-Monitor couldn’t verify the image independently.

Houthi official spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam tweeted Feb. 15: “As usual, when the reckless Saudi-American aggression fails and receives painful strikes in the fields of military confrontation, it takes a very heavy and foolish approach to target civilians,” in reference to the airstrikes in al-Masloub district.

He warned in another tweet, “Our Yemeni people will not leave the criminal to continue his aggression, and God willing will not let him sleep soundly.”

This threat came before the reports about reaching a prisoner swap deal. In a Feb. 16 tweet, Abdul Salam said, “1,400 prisoners will be released, including Saudis and Sudanese.”

According to Al Jazeera, the consultations between the government and rebels were co-chaired by the office of the UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for the past seven days. Representatives from the Saudi-UAE-led coalition also attended the talks, the UN said.

Al-Masdar Online cited an unnamed UN source as saying that among the detainees to be exchanged are four senior government officials, including former Defense Minister Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi. A UN Security Council resolution issued in April 2015 had demanded Houthis to release Subaihi.

For his part, Abdul Qader al-Murtada, head of the Houthis' National Committee for Prisoners' Affairs, said that this deal, according to which 900 Houthi detainees and 520 government detainees will be released — is based on four pillars.

In a Feb. 17 interview with the Houthi-run al-Thawrah newspaper, Murtada said the first phase of the deal requires that all sides approve that there should be a solution to the conflict. The second phase, according to him, consists of implementing the prisoner swap.

Murtada added that the third phase will include the formation of field committees to recover the bodies of victims from all fronts and regions, and the last phase calls for an agreement for holding a new round of consultations on March 23 in Amman, Jordan.

Al-Monitor reached out to ICRC spokesman Fareed Alhomaid on Feb. 19 to comment on whether the parties will exchange final lists of prisoners on Feb. 20, according to the phased release of all conflict-related detainees. Alhomaid declined to comment if there is progress in this regard.

“Due to the sensitive nature of this issue and the ongoing work being done,” Alhomaid told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp. “Further details about the upcoming exchange will not be disclosed at the moment.”

Feb. 20 passed with no reports of exchanging the lists or reports of making any move forward amid a media blackout by both parties.

Al-Monitor reached out to the Houthis’ representative office late Feb. 20 via WhatsApp for a comment on exchanging lists of prisoners for the upcoming release. The office did not respond.

Apparently, the parties are trying to sustain the seriousness and momentum they have gained to release their detainees, a move that hailed by Griffiths Feb. 16, following the signing of the detailed plan.

“Today the parties showed us that even with the growing challenges on the ground, the confidence they have been building can still yield positive results,” Griffiths said in a statement.

In December 2018, Yemen's warring sides agreed to swap 16,000 detainees. The first meeting for the agreement’s implementation was held in Amman Jan. 16-19, 2019. But both sides failed to reach an agreement, as they traded accusations over withholding information and providing fake names of detainees.

Like any other agreement signed between Yemen’s warring sides since the war erupted in 2015, more important than the signing is the implementation on the ground.

It’s no different with the most recent swap deal, as the latest military developments threaten its implementation. Hope for its success remains scarce, while the traditional war of words between the warring sides is slowly turning into a war of agreements. 

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