Yemen‘s main airport was briefly reopened on Thursday to receive more than 100 Houthi prisoners of war released by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as efforts to end the five-year conflict gain momentum.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which supervised the arrival, said in a statement on Thursday that 128 of 200 freed Houthis arrived at the capital’s Sanaa International Airport, which was closed on August 9, 2016, by the Saudi-UAE-led military coalition.
The transfer of Houthi prisoners is being seen as a sign that the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and the rebels were advancing a United Nations-brokered deal aimed at ending the war in the Arab world’s poorest country.
In September, the Houthis freed scores of captives who had been held since the rebels seized Sanaa, along with much of northern Yemen, in 2014.
The ICRC said it hoped these releases would “create positive momentum to return more detainees to their families”.
“This release is excellent news for the freed detainees and their families in Yemen with whom they will be reunited,” said Kedir Awol Omar, the ICRC’s head of mission in Saudi Arabia.
“We hope that the release of these 128 detainees but also the 290 detainees set free by Ansarullah on 30 September will create a positive dynamic.”
Meanwhile, the Saudi-UAE-led coalition said Yemeni civilians in need of medical care could be flown out of the Sanaa airport.
“In cooperation with the World Health Organization, there will be flights to transport patients from the capital Sanaa to countries where they can receive appropriate treatment for their cases,” Colonel Turki al-Maliki, coalition spokesman, said in a statement carried by the Saudi Gazette.
The coalition imposed an air and sea blockade on the opposition-held territory in March 2015, saying it was the only way to stop the smuggling of weapons.
Humanitarian organisations, who have long campaigned for the air blockade to be lifted, have welcomed the latest development.
“For the last three years, the Sanaa airport closure has been a death sentence for thousands of women, children and men who died prematurely because they were unable to get treatment abroad,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“Today’s move comes too late for them, but will hopefully save the lives of other Yemenis caught in the conflict and with no available treatment in the country,” he added.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Houthi rebels, who now control much of the impoverished country’s north.
The Saudi-UAE-led coalition intervened in March 2015 after the Houthis overthrew the internationally-recognised government in Sanaa, which the coalition seeks to restore.
The five-year civil war has left tens of thousands of people dead, most of them civilians, according to relief organisations, and has pushed millions to the brink of famine in what the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
“Over 10 million people are on the brink of starvation. The conflict needs to end so that millions of families can start rebuilding their lives.” Egeland said.