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Saudi Arabia releases 13 detainees ahead of wider Yemen prisoner swap: Houthis

Prisoners freed as Saudi officials plan to travel to Sanaa for permanent ceasefire talks, with momentum building to deescalate tensions
Fighters loyal to Yemen's Houthi movement stand guard during a rally marking the eighth anniversary of the Saudi-led intervention in their country, in Sanaa on 26 March (AFP/File photo)

An official of Yemen's Houthi movement said on Saturday the group had received 13 detainees released by Saudi Arabia in exchange for a Saudi detainee freed earlier, ahead of a wider prisoners exchange agreed by the warring sides.

Houthi official Abdul Qader al-Mortada said on Twitter the 13 detainees had arrived in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, which is held by the Iran-aligned Houthi group that has been battling a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia since 2015.

"The detainees released today from Saudi prisons are part of the deal agreed via the United Nations, and next Thursday ... the deal will be fully implemented," said al-Mortada, who heads the Houthis' national committee for prisoner affairs.

The Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In March, the Houthi group said that it would release 15 Saudi Arabians, three Sudanese and a number of other detainees in exchange for 700 prisoners from the Saudi-led, Yemeni government side of the conflict.

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Meanwhile, Saudi officials plan to travel to Sanaa next week to discuss a permanent ceasefire with Houthi fighters, as momentum builds to deescalate tensions in regional hotspots.

The Saudi delegation are set to travel with officials from Oman and could announce a final Yemen peace deal before the 20 April Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan. 

Oman has traditionally played a mediator role in Yemen, brokering prisoner swaps and back-channel negotiations between Riyadh and the Houthis.

Yemen descended into civil war in 2014, when Houthi rebels seized Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and a coalition of regional allies, chiefly the UAE, intervened in March 2015 to push the Houthis back.

Saudi officials arrive in Iran to discuss reopening diplomatic missions
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UN reports have said that coalition air strikes have killed thousands of civilians, hitting homes and schools. Meanwhile, the Iran-aligned Houthis have launched missiles and drones at civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Despite seven years of brutal fighting, the coalition has failed to dislodge the Houthis, who control about 80 percent of the country’s population, along with major urban centres.

Saudi Arabia is searching for an exit from the war as it looks to pivot its focus towards its economy, capitalising on a windfall in oil revenue.

In another sign of progress, the Saudi-led coalition said on Thursday it would lift an eight-year-old blockade of imports going to Yemen’s southern ports.

The Saudi visit to Sanaa comes amid a broader reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran brokered by China. 

Earlier on Saturday, Saudi officials arrived in Iran to discuss procedures for reopening Riyadh's embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad as a result of the deal.

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