Local Yemeni and UN sources confirm the largest prisoner exchange deal is imminent in Yemen, including 1,400 prisoners of war between the two sides. However, the details and prisoner names are still unknown. A Yemeni human rights source told Al-Ahram Weekly there is a possibility that prominent figures such as former defence minister General Mahmoud Al-Sebehi, or the president’s brother, General Nasser Mansour Hadi, or renowned leading figure in the Yemeni Reform Party Mohamed Qahtan, will be released.
Before the two sides exchanged prisoner lists, sources asserted Brigadier General Khaled Abdullah, operations commander in the government’s Fifth Military Zone, will be released based on mediation by a Houthi leader five years after Abdullah’s detention in Sanaa. The source added that other predictions include the release of the crew of the Tornado fighter jet that Houthis shot down in Al-Jawf province on Friday, but there is no confirmation. What is certain is that among the prisoners are Saudi and Sudanese nationals, and the exchange will include one or two of four leading figures.
Riyadh’s efforts with the UN mission and Red Cross for the release of the Tornado crew accelerated the prisoner exchange deal that had been on the backburner for a long time, due to obstacles over the past 14 months since the signing of the Stockholm agreement which regulates prisoner exchanges between the two sides.
The Chairman of the Prisoner Exchange Committee on the Houthi side, Abul-Qaderah Al-Mortada, said the prisoner exchange will be facilitated by the UN and Red Cross, and will include some 900 Houthi members and 520 supporters of the internationally-recognised government. Al-Mortada said the next round of talks will begin in the Jordanian capital Amman in the last week of March, will include the exchange of the remains of those killed in battle, and the next phase of prisoner exchanges.
Meanwhile, UN Envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Cairo for talks with Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Abul-Gheit. A statement after the meeting focused on the prisoner exchange deal and expressed the Arab League’s optimism that this exchange will be “a step on the path to de-escalation in Yemen and contribute to increasing the possibility of a peaceful settlement of the Yemeni conflict”. However, it is likely the two issues will remain separate.
Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, a Yemeni political analyst, told Al-Ahram Weekly: “All parties are dealing with the prisoner exchange as a political issue, not a humanitarian one. We should not assume the step, especially by Houthi militias, is a retreat in escalation even if the exchange takes place. They want to uphold the Stockholm agreement especially since the global community is pushing for this, but in actuality they do not want to implement it and thus are dealing with it as piecemeal and not as a comprehensive political accord.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan told the Munich Security Conference last week there are relations and contacts with Houthis through “backdoors” or mediators, and dialogue continues despite Houthis claiming responsibility for the attack on Saudi oil refineries ordered by Iran. This showed Saudi Arabia’s flexibility, but later tensions escalated on both sides when the coalition bombed the site of the downing of the fighter jet in Jawf, killing and injuring dozens of residents.
Local reports in Yemen revealed fears that the Riyadh agreement signed by the government and the Transitional Council will collapse, amid reports there are undisclosed tensions between the Transitional Council in the south and Saudi Arabia. Tensions surfaced this week as activists went on protests against Saudi Arabia in Aden. Although this is not the first time Riyadh is publicly criticised in Yemen, it is the first time since the withdrawal of the UAE from Aden and handing the city over to Saudi military command.
The Transitional Council has also escalated rhetoric against President Hadi. Hani Bin Breik, vice chairman of the council, said history will remember Hadi as Yemen’s worst president, and demanded that he stops the “meddling of the Brothers” (meaning the Reform Party, or Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood) which the Transitional Council views as its arch nemesis. Tensions also escalated due to the ongoing rash of assassinations of security personnel, especially in the military, without any party claiming responsibility for the killing spree which has swept across Aden. Most recently, the assassination of Abu Ragheb Al-Yahri, the commander of security positions in the east of the Security Belt Forces.
Meanwhile, there was escalation in the southern province of Al-Mahrah, along the border with Oman, against the Saudi military presence there. A quarrel erupted between forces active in Al-Mahrah and Saudi troops as they crossed a military location, triggering a battle that eventually involved Apache planes.
Al-Mahrah residents believe Saudi Arabia is increasing its security positions and locations along the province’s coast, which some politicians and activists view as another attempt by Riyadh to take control of the area against their will. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia protests there is direct incitement by regional powers against it in the south.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.