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Prisoner exchanges may undermine shaky peace in five year war

The sixth round of the Sa’ada War ended Thursday when Yemeni President Saleh agreed to a cease fire with the Houthi rebels. The six point truce requires the rebels to unblock roads, withdraw from government buildings, return arms and release all prisoners including Saudi soldiers. The rebels also pledged not to attack Saudi Arabia.

However, the issue of prisoner exchanges is threatening to undermine the fragile peace in Yemen’s long simmering northern war. The Saudis issued a 48 hour ultimatum for the return of their soldiers, but the status of rebel prisoners in Saudi and Yemeni custody has not been addressed. A video posted to LiveLeak shows Saudi authorities brutally whipping the feet of prisoners, purported to be suspected Yemeni rebels. The rebels say the unilateral immediate release of all their captives was not in the original agreement.

Yemen began a sustained bombing and ground assault on the rebels in August 2009. Saudi forces joined the war in November after the rebels attacked a Saudi outpost near the border. The rebels previously returned the fort to Saudi control but took it back after the Saudis allowed Yemen to station troops there. Since November, over 100 Saudi soldiers were killed and five are believed held by the rebels.

Civilians in jeopardy
With 250,000 civilian refugees homeless in northern Yemen, the UN’s Secretary-General urged “full access for humanitarian assistance to be provided to the affected civilian population.” Yemen stymied international efforts to deliver aid since the war resumed in August 2009. Human Rights Watch found a similar pattern that “appears to constitute collective punishment” of the civilian population in earlier wars.

Yemen’s indiscriminate bombing of cities, villages, hospitals, mosques and hospitals resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians since August.

An increase in Western and US counter-terror funding for Yemen has not been matched by humanitarian aid for the war refugees despite continuous UN appeals.

“We are facing a dramatic funding situation in Yemen and may be forced to scale down our operations for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) there if we do not receive fresh contributions very soon,” Melissa Fleming, UNHCR spokesperson, said.

History of failed agreements
The announcement by the Yemeni government and northern rebels of a ceasefire was welcomed by the international community and Yemenis alike. UN Secretary General Ban said he hoped the ceasefire will hold and “provide an opportunity to fully resolve this conflict.”

The war began in 2004. Several earlier ceasefires prior to the resumption of war in 2009 collapsed including the Qatari mediated Doha agreement in February 2008. A government sponsored fact finding committee found the 2007 ceasefire crumbled after the Yemeni military failed to abide by the terms of the agreement. The members of the committee were imprisoned after the report was issued.

The peace deal brokered by Qatar floundered during disengagement. Prisoner releases promised by the Yemeni government since 2005 never materialized. Peace was undermined by a lack of confidence building measures as well as deliberate provocations.

The International Crisis Group in an earlier study found “The conflict has become self-perpetuating, giving rise to a war economy as tribes, army officers and state officials have seized the opportunity to control the porous border with Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea coastline. Tribal leaders and senior officials have amassed military hardware and profit from illegal sales of army stockpiles.”

Many experienced observers believe without supervised mutual disengagement, the process is likely to fail again. Yahya al Houthi, exiled member of Parliament and brother of rebel leader Abdel Malik al Houthi said he believes Yemen halted the war only as a result of international pressure and it will resume.

“I think that for our brothers in Sadah, there will not be peace. There will be assassinations, and the Yemeni government will resume the siege of Sa’ada as it did in past years,” al Houthi said.

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