Yemen warring sides agree to exchange 1,081 prisoners

Yemen warring sides agree to exchange 1,081 prisoners
The deal came after a week-long fourth meeting of the Supervisory Committee on the Implementation of the Prisoners’ Exchange Agreement. (Courtesy: UN)
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Updated 25 October 2020

Yemen warring sides agree to exchange 1,081 prisoners

Yemen warring sides agree to exchange 1,081 prisoners
  • The Houthis will release 400 prisoners while the Yemeni government will free 681 Houthi fighters in the first exchange
  • If agreed, the second group of the prisoner swap will include President Hadi’s brother

DUBAI: Saudi-led coalition forces and Iran-backed Houthi militias reached an agreement on Sunday on the largest prisoner swap since the conflict in Yemen began in 2015.

The Houthis will release 400 coalition prisoners and the Yemeni government will free 681 Houthi fighters. 

The deal follows a week of talks in Switzerland and builds on the release plan that the two sides agreed in Amman in February.

There are four high-profile prisoners in the agreement, including Gen. Nasser Mansour Hadi, brother of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He will be in the yet-to-be-agreed second phase of the exchange of about 350 people.

The Yemeni president had been reluctant to agree to the prisoner swap until the second group that included his brother was agreed, a diplomatic source told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman had to personally persuade Hadi to agree to the 1,081 prisoners exchanged, the source said. 

Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, said he wanted to build on the agreement to pave the way for a national cease-fire and a political solution to end  the war. “I was told that it’s very rare to have prisoner releases of this scale during the conflict, that they mostly happen after a conflict,” he said. “I urge the parties to move forward immediately with the release and to spare no effort in building upon this momentum to swiftly agree to release more detainees.”
“Our overall aim at the moment is to bring an agreement on what we call a joint declaration, which is a national cease-fire to end the war in Yemen.”

Griffiths and an official from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are in Switzerland leading a committee overseeing a prisoner swap deal first agreed at peace talks in Dec. 2018.

The next step would be measures to open up ports, airports, and roads, Griffiths said. “This achievement here I think will undoubtedly have a bounce effect for that, that it will encourage the parties to go the extra mile to resolve final differences.
“So what we will be looking to do as a result of the announcement here today is in the coming days ... to go and visit the parties to finalize the specifics of that agreement. And it’s important because it ends the war.”

Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC Middle East regional director, said the agreement was "a positive step for hundreds of detainees and their families back home who have been separated for years and will be reunited soon."

"We call on all parties to continue with the same urgency towards agreeing on a concrete implementation plan, so this operation can move from signatures on paper to reality on the ground," he said.

The Sweden deal contained a prisoner swap which aimed for the release of some 15,000 detainees, split between both sides, but has been slowly and only partially implemented.

The Houthis last year freed 290 prisoners and Saudi Arabia released 128, while a locally mediated swap in Taiz governorate saw dozens freed. In January 2020, the ICRC facilitated the release of six Saudis held by the Houthis.

Yemeni Minister of Human Rights, Mohamed Askar, said he hoped that the latest prisoner exchanged agreement would lead to peace in Yemen and end to human rights violations after six years of war.

“We will continue efforts to alleviate the suffering of our people and…to achieve permanent and comprehensive peace for all Yemenis,” Askar said in a tweet shortly after the deal was announced.

Elisabeth Kendall, Yemen analyst and research fellow at University of Oxford, said that although the deal was a long way from the 16,000 prisoners that was reportedly agreed in Stockholm at the end of 2018, it is a move in the right direction.

“This step has to be viewed positively, given how polarized the warring sides now are and how intractable the conflict has become,” Kendall told Arab News.

However, she cautioned that this “trust-building measure” will only be effective if it is implemented, as previous failed agreements have led to mistrust between the warring sides.  

“A prisoner swap is nowhere even close to tackling the vast gap that needs to be closed between the warring sides before peace talks can get underway.”

(With Reuters)


Egypt receives 2.2 mln AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccine doses

Egypt receives 2.2 mln AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccine doses
Updated 1 min 34 sec ago

Egypt receives 2.2 mln AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccine doses

Egypt receives 2.2 mln AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccine doses
CAIRO: Egypt has received a batch of over 1.7 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses through the COVAX initiative and a separate shipment of 500,000 Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, the health ministry said on Thursday.
The country received its first COVAX delivery of 854,000 AstraZeneca doses at the start of April. It has also received several shipments of the Sinopharm vaccine, bringing the total number of vaccine doses delivered to 5 million, the health ministry said.
Egypt has an agreement for the supply of 20 million Sinopharm doses, and has been allocated 4.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through COVAX.
It is preparing to produce the Sinovac and Sputnik vaccines locally.
Egypt, with a population of just over 100 million, is trying to contain a third wave of COVID-19 infections and the government has put in place some restrictive measures until May 21, shortening opening hours and banning large gatherings.
Some 2.7 million people have registered online with the health ministry to receive a vaccine. Authorities opened a mass vaccination center in Cairo this month capable of vaccinating 10,000 people per day.
Egypt had officially confirmed 240,927 coronavirus cases including 14,091 deaths as of Wednesday.
Officials and experts say the real number of infections is far higher, but is not reflected in government figures because of low testing rates and the exclusion of private test results.

Macron holds talks with Mahmoud Abbas, will discuss Gaza situation with Netanyahu

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (Reuters)
French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (Reuters)
Updated 6 min 43 sec ago

Macron holds talks with Mahmoud Abbas, will discuss Gaza situation with Netanyahu

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (Reuters)

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron is concerned by the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and calls for a "definite reset" of negotiations between the two sides, the French presidency said on Thursday.

Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel's commercial heartland on Thursday as Israel kept up a punishing bombing campaign in Gaza and massed tanks and troops on the enclave's border. 

More to follow...


UAE allows Pfizer COVID-19 dose for emergency use in 12-15 year olds

UAE allows Pfizer COVID-19 dose for emergency use in 12-15 year olds
Updated 56 min 4 sec ago

UAE allows Pfizer COVID-19 dose for emergency use in 12-15 year olds

UAE allows Pfizer COVID-19 dose for emergency use in 12-15 year olds

The UAE has approved the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in children aged 12-15, the government said on Thursday, having already permitted its use for 16 years and above.
The UAE's health ministry approved its use, the government's Twitter account said. The US Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday approved the use of the vaccine in children as young as 12.


Holy city of Jerusalem marks sad end to Ramadan

Holy city of Jerusalem marks sad end to Ramadan
Updated 13 May 2021

Holy city of Jerusalem marks sad end to Ramadan

Holy city of Jerusalem marks sad end to Ramadan
  • Violence lay heavy on hearts of parents of children dressed in new clothes and clutching balloons reveling to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in Jerusalem’s Old City
  • As sun began to break over al-Aqsa mosque crowds of Palestinians gathered for the first prayers to mark Ramadan’s end

JERUSALEM: Dressed in sparkly new clothes and clutching balloons, excited children Thursday revelled in the Muslim Eid Al-Fitr celebrations in Jerusalem’s Old City.
But days of violence lay heavy on their parents’ hearts.
As the first rays of sun began to break over the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site of Islam, crowds of Palestinians gathered for the first prayers to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
The three-day festival is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family feasts and shopping for new clothes, gifts and sweets.
Stalls stacked high with colorful plastic toys, or tasty sesame-dipped snacks that are a Jerusalem specialty, tempted the crowds snaking along the Old City’s narrow stone streets.
At the centuries-old Damascus Gate, scene of violent clashes between Israeli Arabs and police at the start of Ramadan, two huge bundles of helium-filled balloons fluttered in the spring breeze. Mickey Mouse and Spiderman could be spotted bobbing among them.
Just three days ago, Israeli police deployed so-called skunk water there — a putrid mixture of sewage water — to disperse the crowds after a weekend of unrest in different parts of Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem.
Hundreds of Palestinians were injured as well as dozens of Israeli police in the clashes which also erupted on the Temple Mount, the most sacred site in Judaism, on which the Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock shrine also stand.
The convulsion of violence has since spread, engulfing the Gaza Strip run by the Islamic militant Hamas movement, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and Israeli cities which have seen unprecedented mob clashes between Jewish and Arab residents.
On Thursday the boom of rocket fire could be periodically heard in Jerusalem, where calm has mainly returned to the streets. But many believe it may just be the calm before a further storm.
“Do you see any problems, there, right now? No,” said Jabbar, who is in his 60s, pointing at crowds of Palestinians being carefully watched by heavily-armed Israeli police at Damascus gate.
“But it could flare up again at any minute,” he warned grimly.
“Everything will return to normal if God so wishes it,” said Fefka, who lives in the east Jerusalem quarter of Issawiya.
“The violence has to stop, but everything is only done for the settlers here,” she added angrily.
“Jerusalem is also ours,” she insisted, denouncing Israeli settlers who have moved into the east of the city since it was seized in the 1967 war.
According to the United Nations, east Jerusalem has been illegally occupied and annexed by Israel since then.
Hiba, 26, and Soujoud, 21, have been visiting the Al-Aqsa compound since Friday, the day the troubles erupted, triggered by the threat of evicting Palestinian families from their east Jerusalem homes to allow settlers to move in.
“Morning and evening, we stayed at Al-Aqsa,” said Soujoud, a secretarial student. “We don’t want any problems (with the police), but the mosque is ours and we have to defend it,” she added.
On the site, which overlooks the sprawling Old City below, children were entertained by a clown, while adults brandished Hamas flags and rolled out banners praising the Islamist movement.
“Jerusalem is a red line,” read one of the banners.
On Al-Wad Street which crosses the Old City, some passers-by were wearing shirts decorated with Palestinian flags, others had painted them on the cheeks.
Many were wearing the black-and-white chequered keffiyah scarf which has become a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
“We feel very sad for the Eid today, because of the situation and the violence,” said Hiba.
“We can’t be happy when we see what is happening in Gaza and elsewhere.”


Watchdog slams Iran’s treatment of Kurdish journalists

Security forces have detained at least eight Kurdish-Iranian journalists since mid-2020, including at least three who remain in detention. (Reuters via WANA/File Photo)
Security forces have detained at least eight Kurdish-Iranian journalists since mid-2020, including at least three who remain in detention. (Reuters via WANA/File Photo)
Updated 13 May 2021

Watchdog slams Iran’s treatment of Kurdish journalists

Security forces have detained at least eight Kurdish-Iranian journalists since mid-2020, including at least three who remain in detention. (Reuters via WANA/File Photo)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists: Tehran should ‘release all jailed journalists immediately’
  • Minority activists and journalists in Iran regularly face arbitrary detention and torture 

LONDON: The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has spoken out against Iran’s use of “vague, trumped-up” charges to crack down on Kurdish journalists, and urged authorities to release three who remain in detention.

Since May 2020, Tehran’s security forces have arrested dozens of activists and students in a crackdown on perceived pro-Kurdish movements in the country, according to reports cited by the CPJ.

They have arrested at least eight Kurdish journalists, three of whom remain behind bars.

“Iranian authorities’ targeting of Kurdish journalists adds a dimension of ethnic discrimination to the country’s already dire campaign to imprison members of the press,” said the CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa researcher Justin Shilad. 

“Authorities should drop all vague, trumped-up charges filed against Iranian-Kurdish journalists, and release all jailed journalists immediately,” he added.

On condition of anonymity, a lawyer representing several detained journalists told the CPJ that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are “very sensitive about Kurdish journalists and the topics they write about, especially if they write about the unity of Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, and other regional issues of Kurds.”

Iran’s ethnically diverse population — including Kurds, Arabs, Azerbaijanis and other minorities — has long been a source of insecurity for the regime, which at various times in its history has been confronted with secessionist movements.

For this reason, the lawyer explained, Tehran is “sensitive every time Kurdish journalists travel to Kurdish areas of Iraq such as Erbil. They closely monitor all movements across the border and any journalists’ assembly.”

Jafar Osafi, who is one of three journalists who remain in detention after the 2020 crackdown, ran a religious commentary and discussion channel on Telegram called “QandA with Sunnis.” He was arrested in his own home in June 2020, and has since been moved to Urmia prison, where the CPJ said he remains.

The committee said: “Iranian authorities must stop imprisoning and harassing Kurdish and other minority journalists, and should allow all members of the press to cover the news freely.”

According to Amnesty International, Iran’s ethnic minorities face “entrenched discrimination, curtailing their access to education, employment, adequate housing and political office.

“Members of minorities who spoke out against violations or demanded a degree of regional self-government were subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment. The authorities criminalized peaceful advocacy of separatism or federalism and accused minority rights activists of threatening Iran’s territorial integrity.”