(28 Nov 2019) Over a hundred Houthi rebel prisoners, released by the Saudi-led coalition, returned to Yemen on Thursday – a move toward a long-anticipated prisoner swap between the warring parties.
Welcoming 128 freed Yemenis at the airport in the capital, Sanaa, Houthi leader Muhammad al-Bukhaiti hailed their arrival as “a first practical step by the Saudis that builds trust.”
Dozens more released in Saudi Arabia earlier this week are expected to follow.
Relatives and Houthi officials gathered around the procession of prisoners, kissing their hands.
The prisoner transfer was a sign the Saudi coalition and Iran-backed Houthis were advancing a UN-brokered deal aimed at ending the war in the Arab world’s poorest country.
In September, Houthis freed scores of captives who had been held since the rebels seized Sanaa, along with much of northern Yemen, in 2014.
The coalition launched its campaign in 2015 to drive out the Houthis and restore the internationally-recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, now exiled in Saudi Arabia.
The war has killed over 100,000 people, many of them civilians, and created a humanitarian catastrophe.
Yemeni government officials had described the release as a show of good faith aimed at encouraging Houthis to engage in peace talks.
A much larger prisoner swap has been in the making since warring sides agreed to a UN-negotiated deal in Sweden last December.
The agreement, which has yet to be fully implemented, also involves a ceasefire in the crucial port city of Hodeida, a main conduit for humanitarian aid and imports into Houthi territory.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia started backchannel negotiations with the Houthis in Oman, after the rebels claimed an attack on Saudi oil infrastructure that threatened global oil supplies.
The United States blamed the attack on Iran, which denied involvement.
In the absence of a broad peace plan, current talks focus on interim goals, such as reopening the international airport in Sanaa, which was shut down by the coalition in 2016.
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