Saudi-led coalition transfers scores of freed prisoners to Yemen

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ADEN -The Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen said on Friday it transported more than 100 freed prisoners to Yemen in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross in a humanitarian initiative to support a U.N.-brokered truce.

The coalition said last month it would release 163 prisoners from Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group who fought against Saudi Arabia, but a Houthi official later said the list included individuals who did not belong to the movement.

The coalition said 108 detainees were flown from Saudi Arabia to the southern city of Aden, where Yemen’s Saudi-backed government is based, and nine to the Houthi-held capital Sanaa. The ICRC in a statement confirmed that 117 had been repatriated.

The Houthis said they were in contact with the ICRC and that 126 detainees have been freed, “not 163 as the Saudi regime announced,” the group said in a statement.

The coalition said 37 prisoners were taken by land across the Saudi-Yemen border. It said nine “foreign fighters” were being handed over to their embassies, Saudi state media reported, without specifying their nationalities.

A Yemeni government official told Reuters the Houthis had refused to take those flown to Aden. Earlier this month, the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee said the list of detainees included people “unknown to us and who are not among our prisoners”.

The Houthis said only five of the detainees were “prisoners of war” and four were fishermen “who had been kidnapped in the Red Sea” and that the remaining detainees were unknown to the group. They also said nine of the detainees were foreigners from Africa.

The Houthi movement said it welcomed the freeing of any Yemenis but called for coordination with its authorities, adding that the group has freed 400 prisoners of war this year.

The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthis after they ousted the internationally recognised government from Sanaa in late 2014.

The warring parties agreed on a two-month truce that began on April 2 in the first major breakthrough in years under U.N.-led efforts to end the war that has killed tens of thousands and caused a dire humanitarian crisis.

They had also been discussing a potential prisoner swap under the auspices of the United Nations involving 1,400 Houthi prisoners and 823 coalition prisoners, including 16 Saudis.

The last major prisoner exchange, involving around 1,000 detainees, took place in 2020.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden; Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva, Lina Najem and Yousef Saba in Dubai, and Lilian Wagdy and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Nick Macfie and Louise Heavens)