Yemen's rebels say long-awaited prisoner exchange begins

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A satellite TV channel run by Yemen's Houthi rebels broadcast the start of a long-awaited prisoner exchange on Thursday between the country's warring sides, as three planes carrying freed Houthi prisoners touched down in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa.

Last month, the United Nations announced that the Houthis and Yemen's internationally recognized government had agreed to exchange more than 1,000 prisoners, marking the first phase of a prisoner-release plan reached earlier this year. The swap was being coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen.

Hundreds of Houthi politicians and military commanders lined up on the tarmac in Sanaa, where a red carpet was rolled out and a military band played. As they disembarked, the released rebels, all dressed in white robes, raised their clenched fists chanting “God is Great,” and “Death to America and Israel.”

Another two planes took off from Sanaa, one carrying freed Yemeni government prisoners and another carrying 15 Saudis and five Sudanese who had fought alongside government forces, the Houthi's Al-Masirah news channel reported. The planes were heading for Seyun airport in southern Yemen and Abha airport in Saudi Arabia. Another plane carrying more Houthi rebels was still expected to arrive in Sanaa, the report said.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV aired live footage of freed Yemeni government prisoners disembarking their plane in Seyun airport in the eastern province of Hadramawt, which is controlled by forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government.

The conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country erupted in 2014, when the Iran-allied Houthis seized the capital and much of the country’s north. A U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition, determined to restore President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government, launched a military intervention months later.

The prisoner-swap deal was seen as a breakthrough during 2018 peace talks in Sweden. Both parties agreed then to several confidence-building measures, including a cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeida. Implementation of the tentative peace plan, however, stumbled amid ongoing military offensives and distrust between the two sides.

The Houthis’ Information Minister Daif Allah al-Shamy hailed the swap as “a huge step.”

“Today, it is not only the prisoners’ families that feel happy, but all Yemenis,” he said. “As for those who were not included in this swap, remain assured that we have plenty of tools for further exchanges.”

Occasional releases of dozens of prisoners over the past two years have served as gestures of good faith, stoking hopes the factions would implement what the U.N. has described as the war’s “first official large-scale” exchange. The two sides committed earlier this year to swap over 1,400 detainees.

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ElHennawy reported from Cairo.