AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: The latest round of prisoner exchange talks between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Iran-backed Houthis have stalled due to the Houthi movement’s refusal to release journalists and politicians, Yemeni and UN officials said Sunday.
Organized by the UN, talks in the Jordanian capital, Amman, resumed last month with the aim of freeing 301 prisoners on both sides. This built on previous discussions which had resulted in the exchange of over 1,000 prisoners in October.
The Yemeni government has accused the Houthis of ruining the talks by refusing to release kidnapped journalists and prominent military commanders and politicians, and demanding that the government release their bogus prisoners.
“It is the intransigence of the Houthis to blame for the collapse of the talks. They firmly rejected the proposals for the release of journalists and other prisoners and sent us false names of their prisoners and asked us to release them, ”said a Yemeni government official familiar with the discussions. He spoke to Arab News on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief reporters.
Relatives of those abducted inside Houthi prisoners and local rights groups have expressed dismay at the failure of prisoner swap talks.
Amat Al-Salam Al-Hajj, president of the Association of the Mothers of the Kidnapped, an umbrella organization for thousands of women close to prisoners of war, told Arab News that news of the failed talks came as a bomb for her and the families of prisoners who want to see their loved ones released.
“We are not surprised by the failure of the talks because among the Houthi delegation is a person infamous for torturing prisoners,” Amat Al-Salam said. She added that the Houthi group had refused to discuss the release of many people who had been abducted from homes in Houthi-controlled areas and had insisted on exchanging fighters.
“The mothers of the abductees are heartbroken as they expected their loved ones to be released during the talks. This is a purely humanitarian issue and should not be mixed up with the political file, ”she said.
Yemeni observers and officials say the Houthis interpreted the US administration’s conciliatory approach to the Iranian regime and the revocation of a terrorist designation against them as a green light to spoil the prisoner exchange talks and mount an offensive on the oil-rich town of Marib.
Najeeb Ghallab, Yemen’s Under Secretary of Information Ministry and political analyst, told Arab News on Sunday that the Houthis became adamant during talks shortly after the United States removed their name from a list of groups terrorists and that they only participated in the talks to avoid accusations that they are not serious about peace.
“The Houthi group is determined to use the prisoners’ file to present themselves as serious in respecting the peace initiatives,” he said.
He added that the number of Yemeni government and Houthi prisoners during the current fighting is higher than those released last year.
Sporadic fierce battles were reported on Sunday on major battlefields in central Marib province and neighboring Jouf province, local government and media officials said.
Army troops and allied tribesmen repelled Houthi attacks on disputed areas of Serwah and Al-Kasara, north and west of Marib town, after killing and injuring dozens of rebel fighters. Yemen’s Defense Ministry and local media said loyalists also launched a counterattack against the Houthis in Helan Mountain as Arab coalition warplanes hit military reinforcements for rebels coming from the capital, Sana’a, and heading towards the battlefields of Marib.
Brig. Gen. Ali Al-Houri, commander of the Brigade13 and Helan and Al-Mashjah battlefields, said his forces had inflicted defeats on the attacking forces, denying media reports of Houthi territorial gains in Marib.
“We are ready to defeat them. The fighters are steadfast and strong, ”said the army commander behind a military barricade in Marib.
The current escalation in fighting began earlier this month when the Houthis launched an offensive to retake the central city of Marib, the last stronghold of the Yemeni government in the north of the country.