The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said Tuesday it has released 200 Houthi rebels to advance a UN-brokered deal aimed at ending the war in the Arab world’s poorest country.
Coalition spokesperson Col. Turki al-Malki said in a statement that the move was aimed at paving the way for a larger and long-delayed prisoner swap agreed upon last December.
Rebel leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi welcomed the move, calling on the coalition to release “all war prisoners.”
The coalition has been battling the Iran-backed Houthis on behalf of Yemen’s internationally recognized government since 2015. The war has killed over 100,000 people and created what the UN says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages.
In September, the Houthis released scores of detainees they had rounded up and held for years in rebel-controlled territory. The rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen in 2014, months before Saudi Arabia entered the war.
The prisoner swap was part of a UN-negotiated agreement reached in Sweden last December. The agreement involved a ceasefire in the port of Hodeida, the main passageway for imports and a lifeline for Houthi-controlled areas.
The agreement has yet to be fully implemented.
Yemeni government officials said the release of prisoners was a trust-building measure aimed at encouraging the Houthis to negotiate with the coalition to end the war. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Saudi Arabia began holding indirect talks with the Houthis in Oman in September, after the Houthis claimed an attack on Saudi oil infrastructure that affected global oil supplies. The United States blamed the attack on Iran, which denied involvement.
The talks are focused on interim agreements, such as reopening Yemen’s main international airport in Sanaa, which was shut down by the Saudi-led coalition in 2016.
Al-Malki, the coalition spokesperson, said it would work with the UN to fly patients out of Sanaa for treatment abroad.