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Saudis among scores of Yemen war prisoners freed in swap

Yeman, SANAA: The International Committee of the Red Cross claimed on Saturday that hundreds of prisoners of war, including Saudis, were released as part of a cross-border exchange between a Saudi-led military coalition and Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

The flights between Saudi Arabia and Huthi-held area in Yemen were part of a multi-day transfer involving almost 900 inmates, which comes amid peace talks that have increased expectations for an end to Yemen’s eight-year-long war.

The first aircraft of the day took off before 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) from the southern Saudi city of Abha, bound for Yemen’s Huthi-held capital Sanaa, according to ICRC public affairs and media consultant Jessica Moussan.

Following that came an aircraft from Sanaa transporting 20 former inmates, including 16 Saudis and three Sudanese.

Sudan is a member of the Saudi-led coalition and has contributed ground forces to the conflict.

Furthermore, 100 Huthis were scheduled to be transferred to Sanaa on three separate planes from Mokha on the Red Sea coast, a town held by Yemen’s coalition-backed government.

According to an AFP journalist in Abha, at least three buses delivered the inmates to the tarmac of Abha airport, which has previously been targeted by Huthi drones and missiles.

Wheelchairs were stationed alongside the buses to transport some of the inmates to the plane.

318 inmates were evacuated on four flights between government-controlled Aden and Sanaa on Friday, reconnecting with their families ahead of Eid al-Fitr next week.

The total number of POWs on both sides is unclear.

The continuous exchange is a confidence-building step that coincides with a major diplomatic drive to end Yemen’s war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and resulted in side effects such as food insecurity and a lack of access to health care.

According to analysts, eight years after mobilizing a coalition to crush the Huthis, the Saudis have accepted that this goal will not be realized and are looking to reduce their military commitment.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a 29-year-old defense minister at the start of the war, has since become the kingdom’s de facto ruler and is eager to focus on his ambitious “Vision 2030” domestic reform plan.

The Saudi departure strategy looks to have gotten a boost from a historic reconciliation agreement signed with Iran last month.

The deal, mediated by China, asks for the Middle East’s heavyweights to fully reestablish diplomatic ties after a seven-year break and has the potential to redefine regional ties.

Saudi Arabia is also pushing for the reinstatement of Iran’s ally Syria into the Arab League, more than a decade after it was suspended due to President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

On Friday, the monarchy, which once openly advocated for Assad’s removal, gathered top diplomats from eight other Arab countries in the Red Sea city of Jeddah for Syria talks, then published a statement emphasizing the “importance of having an Arab leadership role in efforts to end the crisis.”

Active combat in Yemen has decreased over the past year as a result of an UN-brokered truce that formally expired in October but has largely persisted.

A Saudi delegation traveled to Sanaa, which has been held by the Huthis since 2014, a week ago for negotiations aimed at restoring the truce and establishing the framework for a more sustainable ceasefire.

According to Huthi and Yemeni government sources, the group, led by Ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber, left Sanaa late Thursday without a finalized truce but with intentions for more discussions.

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