Talks in Yemen began a day after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a deal to restore diplomatic ties.
Representatives of Yemen’s government and Iran-linked Houthi rebels began talks in Geneva on Saturday to implement a prisoner exchange deal, the United Nations said.
The deal, which brought Yemen’s warring factions – the internationally recognized government and the Houthis – to Switzerland, is overseen by UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“I hope that the parties are willing to enter into serious and forthcoming discussions to agree on the release of as many prisoners as possible,” Grundberg said in a statement.
“I urge the parties to honor their commitments, not only to each other, but also to the thousands of Yemeni families who have waited far too long to be reunited with their loved ones,” he added.
The conflict in Yemen erupted in 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa and much of the north of the country. That prompted a Saudi Arabian-led coalition to intervene months later in an attempt to return the internationally recognized government to power.
The conflict has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The talks, which are reported to last 11 days, marked the seventh meeting aimed at implementing a prisoner exchange agreement reached in Stockholm five years ago, the UN said.
Under that agreement, the parties agreed to release “all prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared persons, and those under house arrest” held in connection with the conflict “without any exceptions or conditions”.
Jason Straziuso, a Geneva-based spokesperson for the ICRC, characterized the meeting as an opportunity to “reduce the humanitarian suffering associated with this conflict”.
“If more detainees are released, it will be welcome news for families who can be reunited with loved ones,” he said.
The ICRC noted that previous meetings brokered by Grundberg’s office had “resulted in the release of prisoners on both sides”.
“In 2020, more than 1,050 detainees have been released and provided transportation to their region of origin or home country after an agreement reached by the parties,” it said.
Majed Fadail, Yemen’s deputy human rights minister and member of the government delegation, said they were eager to release all prisoners of war to help achieve “lasting and comprehensive peace” in Yemen.
Abdul-Qader el-Murtaza, the head of the Houthi delegation, said he hopes this round of talks proves to be “decisive”.
The Abductees’ Mothers Union, an association of female relatives of prisoners imprisoned by the Houthis, called for a “radical solution” that would end the suffering of those languishing in prisons. It said in a statement that releasing prisoners would be a step towards ending the conflict.
The talks began a day after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a China-brokered deal to restore diplomatic ties after years of frayed ties and hostilities.
Analysts were cautious about the Iran-Saudi deal. Ahmed Nagi, a Yemen expert with Crisis Group International, said that while the agreement was “an important step”, it does not mean that Yemen’s multi-stage conflict will be resolved soon.
“It is not clear what the details of the deal are and how Tehran and Riyadh will deal with Yemen’s complexities on the ground,” he said.