Yemen war: Houthi rebels release hundreds of detainees

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media captionYemeni detainees hug relatives after being released by Houthis in Sanaa

Yemen's Houthi rebels have unilaterally released 290 detainees as part of a UN peace initiative, the International Committee of the Red Cross says.

Those freed include 42 survivors of an air strike on a prison this month that killed more than 100 people.

The attack was carried out by a Saudi-led coalition backing the Yemeni government in the country's civil war.

The UN special envoy for Yemen said he hoped the Houthis' step would lead to further releases by both sides.

A prisoner swap was one of three elements of an agreement between the warring parties that was brokered by the UN in Sweden's capital, Stockholm, in December.

The head of the Houthi committee for prisoner-of-war affairs, Abdul Qader al-Murtada, said on Monday the rebels would free 350 detainees, including three unidentified Saudi nationals.

"Our initiative proves our credibility in implementing the Sweden agreement and we call on the other party to take a comparable step," he added.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe detainees released on Monday included 42 survivors of an air strike on a Houthi-run prison

The humanitarian organisation gave no details about the identities of the detainees, besides saying that they included survivors of the Dhamar attack.

"The release is a positive step that will hopefully revive the release, transfer and repatriation of conflict-related detainees as per the Stockholm agreement," it said.

UN special envoy Martin Griffiths also welcomed the initiative and called on all parties to ensure the safe return of the released detainees to their homes.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe Houthis urged their opponents to take a comparable step

"I invite the parties to meet in the nearest opportunity and to resume the discussions on future exchange as per their commitments to the Stockholm agreement," he said.

The Houthis' announcement came a day after they said they had killed more than 200 pro-government fighters and captured 2,000 others in a major attack near the border with Saudi Arabia's Najran province.

Video footage released on Sunday by the rebels showed dozens of captured soldiers and some equipment, as well as several burned-out military vehicles.

media captionUnverified Houthi footage broadcast

On Monday, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said the Houthis' claims were part of a "misleading media campaign".

Col Turki al-Malki said the coalition had thwarted a rebel attempt to encircle units of the Yemeni army and seize positions on Thursday.

The coalition assessed that some 1,500 rebel fighters were killed and 250 of their vehicles were destroyed, he added.

Yemen has been devastated by a conflict that escalated in March 2015, when the rebels seized control of much of the west of the country and forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee abroad.

Map: Map of Yemen

Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia Muslim power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Muslim Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring Mr Hadi's government.

The UN says the fighting in Yemen has left at least 7,000 civilians dead. But monitors believe the death toll is far higher. The US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that more than 90,000 civilians and combatants have been killed.

The civil war has also triggered the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with thousands of civilians dying from preventable causes, including malnutrition, disease and poor health.