The three-day operation, which started Friday, was the most significant prisoner exchange in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition and their rivals, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, released more than 1,000 detainees in October 2020.
The U.N.-brokered deal involved the release of over 700 detained Houthis, and more than 180 other prisoners, including Saudi and Sudanese troops fighting with the Saudi-led coalition.
The Red Cross said it “worked tirelessly to reunite about 900 former detainees with their families,” describing the prisoner exchange as a “positive step toward peace and reconciliation in Yemen.”
Yemen was plunged into devastating conflict when the Iranian-backed Houthis descended from their northern stronghold in 2014, seizing the capital of Sanaa and much of northern Yemen and forcing the government into exile.
A Saudi-led coalition including the United Arab Emirates intervened in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government. The conflict has turned in recent years into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The war has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The prisoner exchange deal involved the release of top military officials held by the Houthis since the start of the war. Those released included Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who was the defense minister when the war erupted; Nasser Mansour Hadi, the brother of former Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi; and relatives of Yemen‘s former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Houthis on Saturday freed Saudi and Sudanese troops whom the rebels detained while fighting on the side of the Saudi-led coalition.
The rebels also freed four Yemeni journalists who were detained and sentenced to death in recent years by a Houthi-controlled court in a trial described by Amnesty International as “grossly unfair.”
The prisoner exchange came as the Houthis and Saudi Arabia said they have made progress in their negotiations to revive an expired cease-fire and embark on talks to settle the conflict.
The Houthis said both sides would continue their talks after the approaching holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month Ramadan, later in April.
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