Yemen's rival sides complete war's largest prisoner exchange

Yemen's warring sides completed a major, U.N.-brokered prisoner swap on Friday, officials said, a development that could revive the country's stalled peace process after more than five years of grinding conflict, reports AP. 

This week's prisoner release, the largest-ever in the war, marks a breakthrough in the implementation of a long-awaited deal between Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led military coalition supporting the country's internationally recognized government. International pressure has been building on the parties to end the war, which has killed thousands of civilians and triggered the world's worst humanitarian crisis. 

"We're very happy this operation has concluded with success, regardless of how challenging it was to put it together," said Yara Khawaja, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen, which has overseen the swap. She expressed hope it would help the warring sides overcome mistrust and restart more substantive negotiations "to end the suffering of millions of Yemenis." 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the release "an important step" and "proof that important breakthroughs can be achieved through dialogue and compromise," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. 

The U.N. chief urged the parties "to continue on this path" and finalize a joint declaration including a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian measures, and resumed U.N.-mediated political negotiations to end the war -- an appeal echoed by the U.N. Security Council. 

The council welcomed commitments by both sides to negotiate further prisoner exchanges, stressed the need for a de-escalation of fighting, and "expressed deep concern that famine is a realistic prospect in Yemen this year if food imports or distribution are disrupted and economic collapse continues, "exacerbated by the outbreak of Covid-19 and locust infestations." 

On Friday, several planes ferrying a total of 352 freed prisoners from both sides landed in Sanaa, Yemen's rebel-held capital, and the southern port city of Aden, the seat of the internationally recognized government, according to the Red Cross. An unprecedented 1056 freed detainees returned home in the two-day swap, including hundreds released on Thursday. 

Abdul Raqib al-Omari, director of Aden's airport, confirmed to The Associated Press that two planes touched down in the city a few hours apart, bringing the total number of prisoners returned to the Yemeni government on Friday to 152.