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Yemen's Houthi rebels free 290 prisoners as part of UN-supervised prisoner exchange: ICRC

The release of prisoners on Monday was part of a UN-sponsored deal [File Photo: Getty]

Date of publication: 30 September, 2019

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Nearly 300 prisoners, including dozens of survivors from a Saudi-led coalition strike on a detention centre earlier this month, were freed by the Houthis, the ICRC said on Monday.
Yemen's Houthi rebels have freed 290 prisoners, including dozens of survivors from a Saudi-led coalition strike on a detention centre earlier this month, the ICRC confirmed on Monday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the move as "a positive step that will hopefully revive the release, transfer and repatriation of conflict-related detainees" under a deal struck last year between the rebels and Yemen's government.

The United Nations' special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, welcomed the initiative to "unilaterally release detainees".

"I hope this step will lead to further initiatives that will facilitate the exchange of all the conflict-related detainees as per the Stockholm Agreement" Griffiths said, referring to the 2018 accord.

He called on all parties to work together to speed prisoner releases, saying they and their families had "endured profound pain and suffering." 

In a statement, he urged the parties to meet at the "nearest opportunity" to resume the discussions on future exchanges.

The move came after the rebels announced plans to release 350 prisoners on Monday.

The rebel movement said three Saudis will be among those listed for release, according to a statement by the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee, Houthi-run al-Masirah TV reported.

The 350 individuals were on the lists of persons drawn up as part of the prisoner exchange deal agreed in Stockholm in December, the statement added.

The move follows a recent Houthi announcement that it had captured thousands of pro-government fighters as prisoners, including members of Saudi Arabia’s military.

August offensive

On Sunday, the Houthis said they had killed some 200 pro-government fighters and took 2,000 others prisoner in an August offensive near the southern Saudi region of Najran. 

Just a day earlier, the Houthis had said that officers from Saudi Arabia - which leads a military coalition against the Houthis - were among the captives, but those claims were not repeated in Sunday's televised press conference.

Those captured in the August offensive near the Saudi border were not among those freed on Monday.

"More than 200 were killed in dozens of (missile and drone) strikes while trying to escape or surrender," Houthi spokesman Yahya Saree said. 

"Over 2,000 fighters were taken prisoner," he added, saying most of them were Yemeni but that they included other prisoners.

He said that the three-day "large-scale" operation was launched on August 25, and showed footage purportedly of the attack, but it was not clear why the announcement was being made weeks later.

The coalition had no response to the Houthi claims Saturday that Saudi troops were among those taken captive.

A Yemeni government source confirmed to AFP that some 200 soldiers were killed in an attack in late August, but that only about 1,300 fighters were still being held, including 280 who were wounded. 

The source said that Yemeni troops were surrounded for four days by the Houthis in the rebels' northern stronghold of Saada province. 

The “enemy soldiers” were captured in the attack that was supported by the movement’s drone, missile and air defence units, a statement by the rebels said.  

A spokesman for the Yemen-based rebels said in a statement that three "enemy military brigades had fallen" in the attack, Reuters news agency reported on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the rebels’s Al Masirah TV said the Houthis had captured "thousands" of enemy troops, including many officers and soldiers of the Saudi army, as well as "hundreds of armoured vehicles".

The Houthis have made a series of big announcements in recent weeks, including an offer to halt drone and ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia as part of efforts to end the long-running war.

The rebels also claimed responsibility for massive September 14 attacks on Saudi oil installations that knocked out half of the OPEC kingpin's production and sent shock waves through world energy markets.

The United States and Saudi Arabia however blamed Iran, saying the strikes were carried out with advanced weaponry that was beyond the capability of the Houthis.

On Wednesday, Yemen's Houthi rebels said their offer to halt all attacks on Saudi Arabia still stands despite new airstrikes launched by a Riyadh-led coalition fighting the insurgents that were described by Griffiths as “heartbreaking”.

Tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, have been killed since Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in March 2015 in support of the internationally recognised government after the Houthis captured the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

The fighting has displaced millions and left more than two-thirds of the population in need of aid.

The United Nations has described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

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