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Yemen: Houthis and government free 90 prisoners on last day of exchange

The last of a three-day exchange saw dozens of prisoners released, with more expected during the day
A girl greets her freed father after an International Committee of the Red Cross-chartered plane carrying freed prisoners lands at Sanaa Airport, amid a prisoner swap between the Houthis and the government, in Sanaa, 16 April 2023 (Reuters)

Yemen's Houthi rebels and government forces on Sunday freed 90 prisoners as part of a wide prisoners exchange of nearly 900 detainees, as the warring sides move forward with measures to end the eight-year-old civil war. 

On the last of a three-day exchange, planes carrying detainees took off at the same time from the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa and the government-controlled northern city of Marib, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

ICRC media adviser Jessica Moussan told AFP that "48 former detainees were on board the Marib-Sanaa flight, and 42 on the Sanaa-Marib flight".

Three other flights carrying prisoners are expected during the day, which would complete the deal reached in Switzerland last month to exchange 181 government forces for 706 rebels.

Four journalists sentenced to death by the Iran-aligned Houthis are part of the exchange, said government negotiator Majed Fadail.

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Rebel political chief, Mahdi al-Mashat, said the next round of talks with Saudi Arabia, which leads the military coalition against the Houthis, would start after the Eid al-Fitr holiday expected on 21 April, Yemen's Saba news agency reported. 

The last talks ended hours before 318 prisoners were transported on four flights on Friday between government-controlled Aden and Sanaa, reuniting detainees with their families.

The four-day talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis took place in Sanaa, with the presence of a Omani delegation.

While a truce was not finalised, talks were thought to be positive, and an agreement was struck to hold a further round of discussions to iron out remaining differences. 

In an earlier sign of progress, the Saudi-led coalition said last week it would lift an eight-year-old blockade of imports going to Yemen's southern ports.

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On Saturday, 357 detainees took flights between the Saudi city of Abha and Sanaa. Sixteen Saudis and three Sudanese were among the prisoners freed. The number of prisoners held by each side is not yet known.

In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition, which included the United Arab Emirates, intervened on behalf of the Yemeni government to push back the Houthis after they took control of Sanaa.

Fighting had raged ever since, killing hundreds of thousands and precipitating a humanitarian situation that has been described as the worst in the world.

But after eight years of hostility and devastation momentum is building for a permanent ceasefire. 

A six-month truce brokered by the UN that ended in October is still mostly holding, reducing casualties and giving long-awaited respite to Yemenis. 

For the Houthis, who control the majority of Yemen's north, an agreement could set the path to permanent recognition and further territorial gains. 

Talks between the rebel group and Saudi Arabia comes just weeks after a broader reconciliation between Riyadh and Iran, brokered by China

Yemen is one of the key metrics of the China-brokered reconciliation deal. An MEE correspondent in Tehran reported in March that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office promised to stop arming the Houthis as part of the reconciliation deal.

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