SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Hundreds of detainees from Yemen’s conflict were released Saturday as part of a major prisoner exchange that began a day earlier, the International Committee for the Red Cross said.
The deal, brokered by the United Nations last month, has been the most significant exchange of prisoners in Years. It comes amid concerted efforts diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the long-running war in Yemen.
It involves the release of more than 800 prisoners from all sides of the war that began in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, overthrowing the internationally recognized government. The government fled to the south and then into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi takeover prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later, and the conflict turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States long involved on the periphery, providing intelligence assistance to the kingdom. However, international criticism over Saudi airstrikes killing civilians saw the U.S. pull back its support.
The implementation of the three-day prisoner exchange started Friday with the release of 318 former detainees from all sides, including Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who was the defense minister when the war erupted, and Nasser Mansour Hadi, the brother of former Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia released 120 Houthi prisoners who were transferred by the Red Cross to Sanaa, the ICRC said. Other flights transported Houthi prisoners from government-held cities in Yemen, according to the Houthi media office.
The Houthis would release Saudi and Sudanese troops fighting with the Saudi-led coalition. They would also release relatives of late strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to the deal.
Saleh had fought with the Houthis in the early years of the war, before changing sides, prompting the rebels to kill him in Dec. 2017. Tariq Saleh, nephew of the late president, now leader a powerful force in Yemen’s western coast area.
The prisoner exchange came as the Houthis and Saudi Arabia on Friday wrapped up an intensive round of negotiations in Sanaa to revive an expired cease-fire and embark on Yemen-Yemeni talks to settle the conflict, according to the Houthis. Both sides would meet again for further talks, the rebels said.
The Saudi-Houthi negotiations, brokered by Oman, have gained momentum following a deal last month between Saudi Arabi and Iran to restore their diplomatic ties after a seven-year rift. Iran is the Houthis’ main foreign backer.
The conflict in Yemen has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
Magdy reported from Cairo.