128 Houthi prisoners freed in Saudi Arabia, flown to Yemen

Updated November 29, 2019

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SANAA: Yemeni prisoners pictured upon arrival at the airport.—AFP
SANAA: Yemeni prisoners pictured upon arrival at the airport.—AFP

SANAA: Some 128 Houthi rebels detained in Saudi Arabia were released and flown to the Yemeni capital on Thursday, as efforts to end the five-year conflict gain momentum.

Prisoners arrived in Sanaa on three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) planes and were met at the airport by rebel commanders and some family members.

Some prisoners were helped off the plane into wheelchairs, while others lifted their white robes to show sores to a photographer.

“The treatment we received [in Saudi Arabia] was very bad,” said 35-year-old Abdel Raqib al-Abadi.

He said he hoped for peace but added if “Saudi aggression” continued, the war would continue “until victory”.

The mother of another former detainee said: “My feelings are indescribable. May God return all the other wounded and prisoners to their mothers and families.”

The Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen said earlier this week that it would release 200 Houthi prisoners and also allow patients needing medical care to be flown out of Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016.

Riyadh and its allies intervened in the Yemen war in March 2015 to back the internationally recognised government, shortly after the Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized Sanaa.

The prisoners released on Thursday had been captured in various parts of Yemen between 2015 and earlier this year.

“The ICRC sees the release as a positive step and hopes that it will spur further releases and repatriations of conflict-related detainees,” the global body said in a statement.

Outside the main gate of the airport, hundreds of people gathered to see the detainees and check if they were people they knew who had gone missing during the war.

On Tuesday, United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed the coalition’s decision to release the rebels after meeting with Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi deputy defence minister.

“Griffiths thanked [Saudi Arabia] for announcing the release of the 200 detainees and the opening of Sanaa airport for mercy flights that would allow Yemenis to receive much-needed medical treatment abroad,” his office tweeted.

The initiatives coincide with a lull in Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and come after a senior official in Riyadh this month said it had an “open channel” with the Iran-backed rebels.

However, sporadic violence continues on the ground, with at least 10 civilians killed and 22 wounded, including four children and a woman in an attack on Wednesday in a market in northern Saada, the UN said.

The decision to repatriate the detai­nees has been hailed by the Houthis, with senior official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi calling for a “mass reception” to welcome the released rebels.

Since 2015, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced by Yemen’s conflict, which the UN has termed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2019