(Sanaa) A vast operation of exchange of prisoners began Friday in Yemen between enemy camps, announced the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at a time when Saudi Arabia seeks to negotiate a truce with the rebels in this war-torn country.

“The first plane left Sanaa” as part of the exchange, Jessica Moussan, ICRC media relations officer who oversees the operation, told AFP. The plane, departing from the Houthi rebel-controlled capital, is heading for Aden, where the Saudi-backed government is temporarily based. Another plane left soon after from Aden for Sanaa.

At the end of March, the internationally recognized government and the rebels had reached an agreement in Bern, Switzerland, to exchange more than 880 prisoners including Saudis and Sudanese. The last operation of this magnitude dates back to October 2020, when more than 1,000 prisoners were released.

Neighboring Saudi Arabia has been intervening in Yemen since 2015 to support pro-government forces against the Houthis, rebels backed by Iran, who in eight years of conflict have seized large swathes of northern and eastern territory. West of this poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Bern agreement was concluded after an unexpected warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two Gulf heavyweights who oppose each other on various issues, and sometimes even by proxy in the Middle East conflicts. , as in Yemen or Syria.

In this context, Saudi Arabia is hosting a meeting of several Arab countries on Friday to discuss a possible return of Syria, supported by Iran, to the Arab League from which it has been excluded since the violent repression of the revolt in 2011.

At Sanaa and Aden airports, the families of relatives of prisoners are waiting impatiently for them. “My son has been detained since 2018,” Sanaa resident Abdallah Al-Hajouri told AFP: “It’s been five years now. I miss him so much “.

“Thousands of other families are still waiting to be reunited,” said UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg, while welcoming the operation that began on Friday.

It reminds us that “constructive dialogue and mutual compromise are powerful tools to achieve great results,” he added in a statement.

The war in Yemen has caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, in a context of epidemics, lack of drinking water and acute hunger. More than three quarters of the population depend on international aid, which nevertheless continues to decline.

The prisoner exchange process is to take place over three days in various parts of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the ICRC said in a statement.

“With this gesture of goodwill, hundreds of families torn apart by conflict will be reunited for Ramadan, bringing a beacon of hope amid great suffering,” said Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC director in the Middle East, in reference during the current Muslim fasting month.

Quoted in the statement, he expressed hope that “these releases provide momentum for a broader political solution.”

On Thursday, a Saudi delegation left Sanaa with a “preliminary agreement” for a truce and the promise of “new talks”, according to a rebel official who wished to remain anonymous.

Discussions in Sanaa were “serious and positive” with “progress on some issues”, Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam tweeted.

According to Yemeni government sources, who requested anonymity, the talks are about a six-month truce paving the way for a three-month period of talks over a two-year transition, during which the final solution will be negotiated between all parties.

The truce must meet the two main demands of the rebels: the payment by the government of the salaries of civil servants in the rebel areas and the reopening of Sanaa airport, strictly controlled by the Saudi aviation.

Last year, the parties had already observed a six-month truce. Although it was not officially renewed after its expiration in early October, the situation remained relatively calm on the ground.