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Yemen’s government, rebels meet on stalled prisoner exchange

February 5, 2019
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United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffith, right, speaks to President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, during talks on Yemen, in Amman, Jordan, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Yemen's government and the Houthi rebels are meeting in Jordan for talks on implementing a stalled prisoner exchange agreed upon in December. Griffiths said Tuesday that the three-day meeting aims to "finalize the list of prisoners and detainees to be released and exchanged." (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen’s government and the Houthi rebels met in Jordan on Tuesday for talks on implementing a stalled prisoner exchange agreed upon in December.

The U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths said the three-day meeting aims to “finalize the list of prisoners and detainees to be released and exchanged.”

He stressed that a breakthrough in the prisoners’ deal would give momentum to the rocky talks over Yemen’s crucial port of Hodeida, where a U.N.-brokered truce has witnessed multiple breaches.

“Success in this regard is not only of huge importance for those who will be released and returned to their families, but also for the broader political process in which we are engaged together,” Griffiths said.

A Red Cross official said Monday that the deal has stalled because each side is demanding the release of more prisoners than the other claims to be holding.

Dominik Stillhart, operations director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said each side submitted a list with 8,000 names, but the other side says they are holding a “significantly lower” number.

Yemen was plunged into war in 2014 when the Iran-aligned rebels captured the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi-led coalition intervened a year later, fighting alongside government troops.

The internationally recognized government and the rebels agreed on the prisoner swap and a local cease-fire in the key port city of Hodeida — through which Yemen imports most of its food and humanitarian aid — at U.N.-led talks held in Sweden in December.

Experts say that the deal signed in Sweden is problematic because of its vague wording on which force will take control over Hodeida, which is currently held by the Houthis. As for the prisoners’ deal, there were no guarantees that the Houthis would stop arresting civilians from their homes to use as bargaining chips.

In recent days, human rights advocates have reported the arrest of Awfa al-Naami, a humanitarian worker in Sanaa. Al-Naami, the country manager of the U.K.-based Safe World organization, was arrested after she was summoned by the Houthi-run national security office last Monday. She has not been heard from since.

Unidentified men also stormed the group’s office, confiscating documents and computers, and sealed it. The organization has declined to comment but activists have been circulating al-Naami’s picture online and calling on the U.N. to press for her release.

Meanwhile, hundreds of men have been forcibly disappeared or held without charges in prisons in southern Yemen controlled by the United Arab Emirates, a key member of the coalition, and its local allies. The UAE consolidated its power in southern Yemen after the rebels were forced out in 2015.

Families of detainees have been holding near daily protests demanding the coalition reveal the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Also on Monday, the Danish general who was appointed to lead the U.N. mission tasked with monitoring the Hodeida truce arrived in Sanaa. Lt. Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard will replace retired Gen. Patrick Cammaert, who has been leading the mission since December.

Cammaert held his latest meeting with representatives from the two sides on a ship leased by the U.N.

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