Saudi Arabia has freed more than a dozen Houthi detainees ahead of a wider prisoner release agreed upon by the warring sides, according to a spokesman for the Yemeni rebel group.
The release on Saturday came as Omani officials arrived in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, as part of international efforts to end Yemen’s years-long conflict.
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Abdul-Qader el-Murtaza, a Houthi official in charge of prisoner exchange talks in Yemen’s conflict, said on Twitter that 13 Houthi prisoners have arrived in Sanaa.
He said the prisoners were released in exchange for a Saudi prisoner the Houthis had freed earlier. But he did not say when the rebels released the Saudi prisoner.
There was no immediate comment from the Saudi government.
“The detainees released today from Saudi prisons are part of the deal agreed via the United Nations, and next Thursday … the deal will be fully implemented,” said al-Murtaza.
He was referring to a United Nations-brokered deal struck in Switzerland last month that includes the release of 887 prisoners.
The UN special envoy to Yemen has said the deal is one of several developments reflecting movement towards ending the eight-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The conflict in Yemen began in 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and much of the country’s north, toppling the internationally recognised government that fled to the south then into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi move prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later in a bid to restore the government to power.
The conflict is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The prisoner release comes as delegations from Oman and Saudi arrived in Yemeni capital Sanaa to hold talks with the head of Yemen’s Houthi Supreme Political Council, Houthi-run news agency Saba said on Sunday.
Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdul Salam, who is based in Muscat, said on Twitter on Saturday that he had arrived in Sanaa with an Omani delegation.
Oman has for years hosted talks between the Iranian-backed Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
These negotiations – which run in parallel to the UN peace efforts – have gained momentum in recent weeks after Saudi Arabia reached an agreement with Iran to restore their diplomatic ties after a seven-year rift.
The Iran-Saudi deal, announced in Beijing on March 10, has invigorated hopes of a settlement to Yemen’s conflict.