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Saudi-led coalition threatens force against Houthis as UN seeks to save Yemen deal

UAE minister threatens use of 'calibrated force' against Houthis in Yemen's Hodeidah as Saudi-led coalition frees seven rebel fighters
Saudi-led coalition troops outside Yemeni port city of Hodeidah last November (AFP/File photo)

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has warned it may use "force" against the country's Houthi rebels to make them abide by a United Nations-backed truce, a United Arab Emirates minister and coalition source both said.

"The coalition is prepared to use ... force to prod Houthi compliance with [the] Stockholm agreement," a coalition source told AFP news agency on Wednesday, referring to a ceasefire reached at peace talks in Sweden last month.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, similarly said on Twitter that the coalition may use "calibrated force" to push the Houthis to withdraw from the strategic port city of Hodeidah.

Yemen's warring parties agreed to withdraw from Hodeidah at the negotiations in Sweden. But they have failed to pull out their respective troops, reviving the threat of an all-out assault on the city, which serves as a critical entry point for food and humanitarian aid.

Gargash added on Twitter the Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition - to which the UAE belongs - struck 10 Houthi training camps outside the Hodeidah governorate on Wednesday.

"Coalition prepared to use more calibrated force to prod Houthi compliance with Stockholm Agreement," he tweeted.

The Houthis control Hodeidah, while other Yemeni factions backed by the coalition-which is trying to restore Yemen's internationally recognised government to power-are massed on its outskirts.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths has been shuttling between the parties to rescue the deal, the first major diplomatic breakthrough of the nearly four-year-old war that has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed Yemen to the verge of starvation.

Prisoner swap

Also on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia released seven Houthi prisoners, who were flown to the capital Sanaa on Wednesday by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the day after a Saudi prisoner freed by the Houthis arrived in Riyadh.

The swap comes as Yemen’s warring parties are still hammering out details of a larger prisoner exchange that they agreed to as a confidence-building gesture at the peace talks last month.

Griffiths welcomed the release on Twitter and said he hoped it would encourage the rapid implementation of the larger prisoner swap.

The ICRC, which provided the planes for both the freed Saudi and the seven freed Yemenis, said in a statement it had acted as a neutral intermediary and was not involved in negotiations over the releases.

“We are delighted these persons will soon be home,” Yahia Alibi, head of the ICRC Regional delegation in Kuwait, said in a statement.

“We stand ready to act as a neutral intermediary so that thousands more affected by this conflict can return to their families.”

The organisation released a video showing a man on a stretcher being carried onto a Red Cross plane. 

Citing rebel media Al-Masirah, AFP news agency named the Saudi soldier as Mussa al-Awaji and said he had been released "without conditions, as a humanitarian gesture".

The two parties agreed to exchange 15,000 detainees and have submitted lists of prisoners' names to UN mediators.