Arab coalition set to free 200 Houthi prisoners



UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer attend talks with Yemen's warring parties to discuss a prisoners swap on February 5th in Amman, Jordan. [Khalil Mazraawi/AFP] 

The Arab coalition said Tuesday (November 26th) it will release 200 Houthi prisoners and permit some flights from Sanaa, which is controlled by the Iran-backed militia (Ansarallah), as efforts to end the conflict gain momentum.

The initiatives coincide with a lull in Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Patients needing medical care will be allowed to be flown out of Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016, coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said in a statement released by the Saudi Press Agency.

The coalition has decided "to release 200 prisoners of the Houthi militia" and will facilitate flights from Sanaa for "people in need of medical care" in co-operation with the World Health Organisation, the statement added.

The decision was hailed by the Houthis, with senior leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi calling for a "mass reception" to welcome the released prisoners.

Riyadh brokered a power sharing agreement earlier this month in a separate conflict between Yemen's government and southern separatists, which observers said could pave the way for a wider peace deal in the multi-faceted war.

Further raising hopes, a senior official in Riyadh subsequently said the Saudis have established an "open channel" with the Houthis.

"We do not close our doors with the Houthis," said the official, who declined to be named.

'Saudi-Houthi talks are real'

Tuesday's development "is positive proof that the Saudi-Houthi talks are real and having at least a limited tangible impact," said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

"This is more bad news for the [Houthis'] Iranian backers," he said.

The development follows a lull in recent weeks after a spike in Houthi missile and drone attacks over the summer launched from Yemeni territory on Saudi cities.

Yemen's warring parties agreed under a deal brokered in Sweden last December to exchange 15,000 prisoners, but the accord has not been fully implemented.

The Arab coalition freed seven Houthi prisoners in January, and the Houthis released 290 coalition fighters in September.

Last year, wounded Houthis were flown out of Sanaa for treatment, in what was seen as a key step ahead of the December peace talks.

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