CAIRO: The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Tuesday it has released 200 Houthi rebels to advance a UN-brokered deal aimed at ending the war in the Arab world’s poorest country.
Coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki said in a statement that the move was aimed at paving the way for a larger and long-delayed prisoner swap agreed upon last December.
Rebel leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi welcomed the move, calling on the coalition to release all war prisoners.
The coalition has been battling the Iran-backed Houthis on behalf of Yemen’s internationally recognised government since 2015. The war has killed over 100,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages.
In September, the Houthis released scores of detainees they had rounded up and held for years in rebel-controlled territory. The rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen in 2014, months before Saudi Arabia entered the war.
The prisoner swap was part of a UN-negotiated agreement reached in Sweden last December. The agreement involved a ceasefire in the port of Hodeida, the main passageway for imports and a lifeline for Houthi-controlled areas. The agreement has yet to be fully implemented.
Yemeni government officials said the release of prisoners was a trust-building measure aimed at encouraging the Houthis to negotiate with the coalition to end the war.
Patients needing medical care will also be allowed to be flown out of Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016, the coalition spokesman said, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
The coalition had decided “to release 200 prisoners of the Houthi militia” and to facilitate “in cooperation with the World Health Organisation flights carrying people in need of medical care from Sanaa”.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior figure in the rebels’ political leadership, tweeted: “We welcome the coalition decision... (and) call for them to end torture and abuse until all detainees and prisoners are freed.”
The coalition initiative coincides with a lull in Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and comes after a senior official in Riyadh earlier this month said the kingdom had established an “open channel” with the rebels.
“We have had an open channel with the Houthis since 2016. We are continuing these communications to support peace in Yemen,” the official told reporters in the Saudi capital.
“We don’t close our doors with the Houthis,” he said.
Last Friday, UN envoy Martin Griffiths said the rate of coalition air strikes had sharply fallen over the past two weeks, in an apparent sign that “something is changing in Yemen”.
On Monday, however, air raids by the Saudi-led coalition killed eight Houthi rebels near the key western port of Hodeidah, local officials said.
Yemen’s warring parties agreed under a deal brokered in Sweden last December to exchange 15,000 prisoners, but the accord has not been fully implemented.
The coalition freed seven Houthi prisoners in January, and the rebels released 290 coalition fighters in September.
The Houthi rebels hold the capital Sanaa while the Saudi led-military coalition controls Yemen’s maritime borders and airspace.
Sanaa airport has been closed for the past three years, with only UN and humanitarian flights allowed in and out.
Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2019