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Riyadh to free seven Houthis after Yemeni rebel group releases Saudi prisoner

United Nations envoy to Yemen welcomes small-scale prisoner exchange between Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels
Yemen's warring parties agreed to swap hundreds of prisoners during peace talks in Sweden (AFP)

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has announced the release of seven Houthis prisoners, according to Saudi Arabia's state-run television network, after a Saudi prisoner freed by the Yemeni rebel group arrived in Riyadh.

Saudi prisoner Mousa Awaji returned to the Gulf kingdom on Tuesday on a Red Cross plane from Sanaa due to illness, a Houthi official told the group's TV channel, al-Masirah, as reported by Reuters.

The United Nations' envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, welcomed the small-scale prisoner exchange, saying on Twitter that he "hopes to see more similar humanitarian gestures from the parties".

Griffiths, who landed in Sanaa on Monday, also said he looked forward to the implementation of a wider prisoner exchange agreement between Yemen's warring sides.

"Thousands of Yemeni families await this implementation, to be reunited with their loved ones," he said.

Yemen's warring parties agreed to swap hundreds of prisoners at peace negotiations in Sweden in December, but that exchange has not yet been carried out.

The UN pushed for the prisoner deal, as well as for a ceasefire in the main Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, as part of a series of confidence-building measures that aim to end the brutal conflict.

MBS discusses Yemen with UN chief

Saudi Arabia launched a military offensive in Yemen in 2015 to root out the Houthis, who had taken over the capital, Sanaa, and ousted ally Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The ongoing war has killed tens of thousands of people and plunged the country into a dire humanitarian crisis, with diseases and malnutrition widespread.

Also on Tuesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who personally ordered the launch of the war in Yemen, spoke to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres by phone about the conflict.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said bin Salman, also known as MBS, told Guterres that Saudi Arabia expressed its "keenness" towards all efforts that further "the interests of the Yemeni people, as well as the country's security and stability".

Guterres also thanked MBS for "the backup" Saudi Arabia provides to the UN "to realise positive outcomes" between the parties taking part in the Yemen negotiations, the SPA reported.

Earlier this week, Griffiths said the larger swap of hundreds of prisoners had been pushed back to an unspecified date.

"That momentum is still there, even if we have seen the timelines for implementation extended, both in Hodeidah and with regard to the prisoner exchange agreement," he told Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

"Yet such changes in timelines are expected, in light of the fact that the timelines were rather ambitious and we are dealing with a complex situation on the ground."