The United Nations said Yemen’s warring sides agreed Sunday to exchange more than 1,000 prisoners, marking the first phase of a release plan reached earlier this year.

The U.N. mission in Yemen said the internationally recognized government that was driven from the capital six years ago and the Houthi rebels agreed “to immediately release a first group of 1,081 conflict-related detainees and prisoners, in accordance with the lists of agreed-upon names.”

The prisoner swap deal was seen as a breakthrough during 2018 peace talks in Sweden. Both parties agreed then to several confidence-building measures, including a cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeida. Implementation of the tentative peace plan, however, stumbled amid ongoing military offensives and distrust between the two sides.

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The conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country erupted in 2014, when the Iran-allied Houthis seized the capital and much of the country’s north. A Saudi-led coalition, determined to restore President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government, launched a military intervention months later.

“Today is an important day for over a thousand families who can expect to welcome back their loved ones hopefully very soon,” said the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths.

Sunday’s deal came at the conclusion of a week-long meeting in Glion, Switzerland that was co-chaired by Griffiths’ office and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Representatives from the Saudi-led coalition also attended, the U.N. said.

The U.N. said the deal was built on a plan that both sides agreed on in February.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: First COVID-19 case reported in Yemen'

Coronavirus outbreak: First COVID-19 case reported in Yemen

Coronavirus outbreak: First COVID-19 case reported in Yemen

Griffiths urged both parties to “move forward immediately with the release and to spare no effort in building upon this momentum to swiftly agree to releasing more detainees.”

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Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC’s director for the Middle East, urged the parties to swiftly work to move the agreement “from signatures on paper to reality on the ground.”

The war in Yemen has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical shortages. It has killed over 100,000 people, including fighters and civilians.

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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