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Yemen's warring groups discuss prisoner swap in Geneva

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GENEVA: Representatives of Yemen's government and Ansar Allah fighters kicked off talks in Geneva on Saturday for an exchange of prisoners, with the UN urging both sides to engage in "serious" discussions.

The new round of closed-door negotiations amid years of civil war are being overseen by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"I hope the parties are ready to engage in serious and forthcoming discussions to agree on releasing as many detainees as possible," UN special envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg said in a statement.

The talks, reportedly set to last 11 days, mark the seventh meeting aimed at implementing an agreement on prisoner exchanges reached in Stockholm five years ago, the UN said.

Under that deal, the sides agreed "to release all prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared persons, and those under house arrest", held in connection with Yemen's nearly decade-long conflict, "without any exceptions or conditions".

The ICRC noted in a statement that past meetings mediated by Grundberg's office had "resulted in the release of prisoners on both sides".

"In 2020, more than 1,050 detainees were released and provided with transportation to their region of origin or home country following an agreement reached by the sides," it said.

The latest meeting comes almost a year after the Ansar Allah said they had agreed to a prisoner swap that would see 1,400 fighters freed in exchange for 823 pro-government fighters -- including 16 Saudis and three Sudanese nationals.

But the warring parties have since held a series of talks in the Jordanian capital Amman that did not result in any developments.

"The ICRC is committed to supporting the implementation of future detainee releases and exchanges, and to repatriating or transferring released detainees across front lines back to their respective homes," the organisation said.

Emphasising that it was "a neutral intermediary in this process", the ICRC said it was "not involved in the negotiations on who exactly is going to be released and the identities of the detainees proposed and accepted for exchange by all concerned parties."

Speaking to the official Saba news agency on Thursday, Yemeni government delegation member Majed Fadail said the aim of the talks was "to reach an understanding regarding the details" of a prisoner exchange.

In a Twitter post the same day, the leading Ansar Allah delegate to the Geneva talks said he hoped the negotiations would yield concrete results. "We hope that this round will be a decisive one," Abdul Qader al Murtada said.

Grundberg said it was urgent to reach an agreement.

"With Ramadhan approaching, I urge the parties to fulfil the commitments they made, not just to each other, but also to the thousands of Yemeni families who have been waiting to be reunited with their loved ones for far too long," he said.

Saturday's talks began a day after Saudi Arabia and Iran said they had agreed to restore diplomatic relations, following years of supporting opposite sides during Yemen's more than eight years of war.

A detente between the two regional heavyweights could facilitate a solution to the conflict, which has pitted the Ansar Allah fighters against the internationally-recognised Yemeni government, analysts say. - AFP

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