(Sanaa) Hundreds of Yemeni war detainees, including Saudis, were freed on Saturday in the second day of a massive prisoner swap between rebels and the government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition .
The exchange, which began on Friday, comes amid a warming between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels, and amid talks aimed at ending more than eight years of conflict in Yemen , the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.
A plane carrying 120 Houthi detainees landed in the insurgent-held Yemeni capital Sanaa on Saturday from the southern Saudi city of Abha, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Another, with 117 Houthi detainees on board, took off a little later from Abha bound for the Yemeni capital, according to the ICRC.
“I finally find the taste of freedom,” said ex-convict Abdullah Hashem upon his arrival in Sanaa after seven years in a Saudi prison.
“I hope all the prisoners will be reunited with their families,” he added, hugging his mother.
Meanwhile, a plane carrying 16 Saudis and three Sudanese coalition members arrived in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The brother and son of one of the members of the Yemeni Presidential Council, Tarek Saleh, were also on board, according to the Saudi channel, Al-Ekhbariya.
“This exchange is of very great importance for the political and military leaders of the coalition who want to close the prisoner file and recover all the detainees,” said coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki, quoted by the official Saudi agency, SPA.
Three other flights were scheduled for Saturday, between the Yemeni cities of Mokha (south) and Sanaa, transporting a hundred prisoners.
In all, nearly 900 detainees were to be released over three days, in accordance with an agreement reached in early March in Switzerland between the Yemeni government and the rebels.
As of Friday, 318 prisoners, including Yemen’s former defense minister and the former president’s brother, had been transported between government-controlled Aden and Sanaa, in Houthi hands for more than eight years.
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 fighting has largely ceased since the United Nations brokered a truce a year ago, although that officially ended in October.
Last week, a Saudi delegation traveled to Sanaa for talks aimed at reviving the truce and laying the groundwork for a more durable ceasefire.
The delegation left Sanaa on Thursday with a “preliminary agreement” for a truce and the promise of “new talks”, according to a rebel official who wished to remain anonymous. Talks described as “positive” by the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdelsalam.
This vast prisoner exchange operation, the largest since the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in October 2020, is part of a context of regional appeasement.
The two great powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, concluded in March an agreement, negotiated under the aegis of China, with a view to resuming their relations after seven years of rupture, likely to change the game. regional.
According to Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, Riyadh seeks to “limit its military involvement in Yemen” and achieve a “sustainable long-term peace that would allow it to focus on its economic priorities.” .
But the oil-rich monarchy will long remain “the intermediary, the investor and the guarantor of the conflict in Yemen”, she underlines.