Freed Houthi prisoners return to Yemen

CAIRO (AP) — Over 100 Houthi rebel prisoners released by the Saudi-led coalition returned to Yemen on Thursday, a move toward a long-anticipated prisoner swap between the warring parties.

Welcoming 128 freed Yemenis at the airport in the capital, Sanaa, Houthi leader Muhammad al-Bukhaiti hailed their arrival as “a first practical step by the Saudis that builds trust.” Dozens more released in Saudi Arabia earlier this week are expected to follow.

Relatives and Houthi officials gathered around the procession of prisoners, kissing their hands.

Their return was a sign the Saudi coalition and Iran-backed Houthis were advancing a U.N.-brokered deal aimed at ending the war in the Arab world’s poorest country.

“There’s a positive environment now in Sanaa,” Erika Trovar, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which supervised the captives’ arrival, told The Associated Press. “People in the streets are more optimistic about the future ... and about the return of more detainees to their families.”

Yemeni government officials had described the release as a show of good faith aimed at encouraging Houthis to engage in peace talks.

In September, Houthis freed over 200 captives who had been held since the rebels seized Sanaa, along with much of northern Yemen, in 2014.

The Saudi-led coalition launched its campaign in 2015 to drive out the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, now exiled in Saudi Arabia. The grinding war has killed over 100,000 people, many of them civilians, and created a humanitarian catastrophe.

A much larger prisoner swap has been in the making since warring sides agreed to a U.N.-negotiated deal in Sweden last December.

“This move (Thursday) by the Saudis is lacking,” Houthi official Abdul-Qader el-Murtaza said in a statement. “We hope that a full exchange deal will be completed by both parties.”

The U.N.-mediated agreement, which has yet to be fully implemented, also involves a cease-fire in the crucial port city of Hodeida, a main conduit for humanitarian aid and imports into Houthi territory.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia started backchannel negotiations with the Houthis in Oman, after the rebels claimed an attack on Saudi oil infrastructure that threatened global oil supplies. The United States blamed the attack on Iran, which denied involvement.

In the absence of a framework peace plan, current talks focus on interim goals, such as reopening the international airport in Sanaa, which was shut down by the coalition in 2016.