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AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: The latest round of prisoner swap talks between the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthis have stalled due to the Houthi movement’s refusal to release journalists and politicians, Yemeni and UN officials said on Sunday.

Brokered by the UN, the talks in the Jordanian capital, Amman, were resumed last month with the aim of releasing 301 prisoners on both sides. This built on previous talks that secured the swap of more than 1,000 prisoners in October.

The Yemeni government accused the Houthis of ruining the talks by refusing to release abducted journalists and prominent politicians and military commanders, and demanding that the government release their fake prisoners.

“It is the Houthi intransigence to blame for the crumbling of talks. They strongly rejected proposals for releasing journalists and other prisoners and sent us fake names of their prisoners and demanded us to release them,” said a Yemeni government official with knowledge of the talks. He spoke to Arab News on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

Relatives of the abducted people inside Houthi prisoners and local rights groups have expressed dismay over the breakdown of the prisoner swap talks. 

Amat Al-Salam Al-Hajj, chairwoman of the Mothers of Abductees Association, an umbrella organization for thousands of female relatives of war prisoners, told Arab News that the news of the talks’ failure came as a bombshell to her and families of prisoners who longed to seeing their loved ones set free.

“We are not surprised by the failure of the talks since among the Houthi delegation is a person who is infamous for torturing prisoners,” Amat Al-Salam said. She added that the Houthi group refused to discuss releasing many people who were abducted from homes in Houthi-controlled areas and insisted on swapping combatants. 

“Mothers of the abductees are heartbroken since they were expecting to see their relatives released during the talks. This is a purely humanitarian issue and should not be mixed with the political file,” she said.

Yemen watchers and officials believe that the Houthis have interpreted the US administration’s conciliatory approach to the Iranian regime and the revoking of a terrorism designation against them as a green light to spoil prisoner swap talks and mount an offensive on the oil-rich city of Marib.  

Najeeb Ghallab, undersecretary at Yemen’s Information Ministry and a political analyst, told Arab News on Sunday that the Houthis became inflexible during talks shortly after the US removed their name from a list of terror groups, and only participated in the talks to avoid accusations that they are not serious about making peace.

“The Houthi group is determined to use the prisoner file to market itself as being serious about complying with peace initiatives,” he said.

He added that the number of prisoners of the Yemeni government and the Houthis during the current fighting is more than those who were released last year.

Fighting  

Sporadic fierce battles were reported on Sunday on major battlefields in the central province of Marib and neighboring Jouf province, local government officials and media said.

Army troops and allied tribesmen repelled Houthi attacks on contested areas in Serwah and Al-Kasara, north and west of Marib city, after killing and wounding dozens of rebel fighters. Yemen’s Defense Ministry and local media said that loyalists also mounted a counterattack on Houthis in Helan mountain as warplanes from the Arab coalition hit military reinforcements for the rebels coming from the capital, Sanaa, and heading to the battlefields in Marib.

Brig. Gen. Ali Al-Houri, the commander of Brigade13 and Helan and Al-Mashjah battlefields, said that his forces had inflicted defeats on the attacking forces, denying media reports about territorial gains for the Houthis in Marib.

“We are ready to defeat them. The combatants are steadfast and strong,” the army commander said behind an army barricade in Marib.

The current escalation in fighting started earlier this month when the Houthis mounted an offensive to recapture the central city of Marib, the Yemeni government’s last stronghold in the northern part of the country.

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