Houthi rebels have announced the unconditional release of 350 prisoners, including three Saudi Arabians, days after the Yemeni group claimed to have captured thousands of Saudi troops following an incursion into Saudi Arabia, according to Houthi-run Al Masirah TV.
A statement by the Houthi National Committee for Prisoners’ Affairs (NCPA) carried by Al Masirah TV said the individuals were on the list of persons drawn up as part of the prisoner exchange deal agreed in Stockholm in December.
The United Nations-brokered prisoner swap, one of the three pillars of the breakthrough deal, involving some 7,000 detainees on each side had stalled as the two sides – the Houthis and the Yemeni government – struggled to agree on its implementation.
“Our initiative proves our credibility in implementing the Sweden agreement and we call on the other party to take a comparable step,” said Abdul Qader al-Murtada, head of the NCPA, in the statement carried by the Houthi-run broadcaster.
“We decided to release 350 prisoners because nothing from Sweden agreement have been achieved. The release is going take place today,” the NCPA statement read.
Separately, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which facilitated the release, put the number of those freed at 290.
The detainees were taken in Houthi raids since 2014, when the rebels overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north.
The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths – who supervised the Stockholm agreement – welcomed the offer to unilaterally release a number of detainees, saying he hoped it would lead to further progress on an agreed prisoner exchange deal.
The Houthis said the release of the prisoners was a gesture of goodwill to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition, which has carried out the bombing in support of the internationally recognised government of Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi since 2015.
Al-Murtada said at a news conference on Monday that the group includes three Saudis who will be sent home under the supervision of the ICRC.
He urged the UN to pressure the government to take a similar step.
Franz Rauchenstein, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Yemen, expressed hope in a statement that “this operation opens the door to further releases to bring comfort to families awaiting reunification with their loved ones”.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed al-Attab, reporting from Sanaa, said that among the detainees being released are 40 prisoners of war who survived a deadly Saudi air attack on a detention centre in Dhamar this month.
During the press conference, the Houthis also condemned the Saudi recruitment of children aged 13-16, al-Attab said.
According to the NCPA’s statement, the Houthis plan to file a complaint to the UN over the recruitment of children in war.
The Houthis recently announced the capture of hundreds of Yemeni loyalist forces in a late August offensive near the Saudi border, but they were not among those released on Monday.
On Sunday, Yemen’s Houthi rebels broadcast footage they said was of last month’s major attack near the border with Saudi Arabia, claiming that three “enemy military brigades had fallen”.
The Houthis say the attack killed or wounded 500 soldiers and “thousands” of troops were captured, including Saudi army officers and soldiers, along with hundreds of armoured vehicles.
“More than 200 were killed in dozens of [missile and drone] strikes while trying to escape or surrender,” Yahya Saree, a Houthi military spokesman said.
On Monday, Yemeni Information Minister Muammar al-Iryani accused Houthi rebels of claiming a “fake victory” to cover up their political dilemma.
“The Iran-backed Houthi militia attempts to propagate false victory through its media tools at a time when it is sustaining heavy losses in troops and machinery on a daily basis,” al-Iryani said in statements cited by the official Saba news agency.
“The Houthi militia is propagating these victories with a view to covering up its political and military dilemma, raising up the shaken morale of its members and continuing its proxy war for their masters in Tehran,” he said.
The footage shows a long line of captured troops – dressed in thongs and traditional Yemeni clothing – who appear to be the men surrendering to the rebels.
The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified by Al Jazeera.
A Saudi-UAE-led military coalition, which receives arms and intelligence from Western countries, intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government from power in 2014.
The Houthis, who control most major urban areas, including the capital Sanaa, said on September 20 they would halt missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia if the alliance stopped its operations. The coalition has not yet responded to the proposal.
The group also claimed an attack on pipelines belonging to Saudi oil giant Aramco earlier this month but Riyadh said the drone attacks were sponsored by Iran.