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Saudi-led coalition to free 163 Yemen rebels in peace gesture

Forces loyal to Yemen's Huthi rebels take part in a military parade marking the seventh anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition's intervention in their country, in the capital Sanaa, on March 31, 2022
— Riyadh (AFP)

The Saudi-led military coalition fighting Yemen's Huthi insurgents announced Thursday it would free 163 rebel prisoners, a gesture it said was part of efforts to end the brutal seven-year war.

The move came after a Huthi official called this week for both sides to release 200 prisoners before the coming Eid al-Fitr celebrations, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and several weeks into a fragile truce that has raised hopes of a lasting ceasefire.

"The leadership of the joint forces of the coalition will release 163 Huthi prisoners who participated in the hostilities against the kingdom's lands, as a humanitarian initiative," coalition spokesman Turki Al-Malki said in a statement carried by Saudi state media.

Coalition leaders were finalising steps to release the prisoners in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the prisoners will be transferred to Yemen's Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa, he said.

The conflict, pitting Yemen's Saudi-backed government against the Huthis, has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

It has also featured Huthi strikes on neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But a renewable two-month truce that went into effect in early April has provided a rare respite from violence in much of the country, and has also seen oil tankers begin arriving at the port of Hodeida, potentially easing fuel shortages in Sanaa and elsewhere.

- Dire humanitarian crisis -


The truce also involved a deal to resume commercial flights out of Sanaa's airport for the first time in six years, though the inaugural flight planned for Sunday was postponed indefinitely, with each side blaming the other for holding it up.

In late March, just before the truce took effect, the Huthis said they had agreed to a prisoner swap that would free 1,400 of their fighters in exchange for 823 pro-government personnel -- including 16 Saudis and three Sudanese.

The last such swap was in October 2020, when 1,056 prisoners were released on each side, according to the Red Cross.

On Saturday, Huthi media reported the rebels had released 42 prisoners.

A Huthi official said they had "presented a new offer to the forces of aggression... which stipulates the release of 200 prisoners from each party before the blessed Eid al-Fitr".

The Huthis took over Sanaa in 2014, prompting the Saudi-led military intervention to support the government the following year and igniting a war that has caused what the United Nations terms the world's worst humanitarian crisis.