Yemen: Government and rebels reach agreement on prisoner exchange

From left to right, Abdul-Qader el-Murtaza, head of the Houthi delegation in Geneva, Hans Grundberg, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, and Yahya Mohammed Kazman, representing the Government of Yemen, shake hands during a photo opportunity after the conclusion of the 7th meeting of the Monitoring Committee for the Implementation of the Detainee Exchange Agreement for Yemen, at the European headquarters of the United Nations, Geneva, Monday, March 20, 2023. AP - Salvatore Di Nolfi

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Should we see this as one of the first concrete illustrations of the rapprochement that began ten days ago between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are waging a proxy war in Yemen? An agreement for a prisoner exchange was reached under the auspices of the UN on Monday 20 March in Switzerland between government forces and Houthi rebels.


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It's a rare photo in a conflict that has killed more than 380,000 people. Representatives of delegations from both sides of the enemy sides pose hand in hand in front of the UN flag. Monday's agreement provides for the release of a total of 887 detainees.

In detail, the Houthis are committed to releasing 181 prisoners. Among them are the former Yemeni Minister of Defense and 15 Saudi nationals. On the other hand, the Yemeni government promises to release 706 Houthi rebels.

The exchange will take place in three weeks. Yemen's government forces and Houthi rebels have been negotiating in Switzerland to exchange their prisoners for 5 years. In 2020, a thousand detainees had been released, but since then discussions have stalled. Monday's agreement comes as the sponsors of two warring parties, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have just sealed the resumption of diplomatic relations.

Negotiating strategy

This situation should prompt the Houthis to have more flexibility, said Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, a researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, a Yemeni think tank. "The Houthis were as surprised by the Iran-Saudi deal as all of us and it will force them to reassess their negotiating strategy. They are in a more delicate position; Before, they had full confidence in Iranian support, but the unconditional support of the past is over. They are going to have to work within the limits of what is acceptable so as not to derail relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. »

Read also: War in Yemen: abandoned, the population again plunged into horror

But Iran's political weight over the rebels is not necessarily very strong, said Laurent Bonnefoy, a CNRS researcher and Yemen specialist. "The chain of command between the Houthis and Iran is not clear. It is understood that there is logistical support, but at the same time, there is a fairly clear political autonomy of the Houthis. They know that time is on their side and that Saudi Arabia wants to get rid of it, so the reality is that the Houthis have made very few concessions.


According to a Yemeni government spokesman, the exchange is only a first step, calling for continued efforts to release more detainees.

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