128 Yemeni prisoners of war return to Sanaa from Saudi Arabia

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — 128 Houthi rebel prisoners returned to Sanaa on Thursday after being freed by the Saudi-led military alliance as part of an initiative to bolster the country’s five-year-old war.

The prisoners arrived at Sanaa airport from Saudi Arabia aboard three ICRC aircraft and were met by rebel leaders and their families, an AFP correspondent reported.

A number of prisoners were taken off the plane on a pallet, while others raised their Jalabiya to reveal their sores, in front of an AFP photographer.

“The treatment we received (in Saudi Arabia) was very bad,” Abdul Raqib al-Abadi, 35, told AFP.

He said he hoped for peace but that “if Saudi aggression continues,” the war will continue “until victory.”

“My feeling is indescribable. I pray that all the wounded and the rest of the prisoners will be returned to their mothers and families,” the mother of a former prisoner told AFP.

All the prisoners released on Thursday were captured in different parts of Yemen between 2015 and this year.

Hundreds of Yemenis rallied at the main entrance to the airport, including people who were waiting for returning prisoners to see if relatives were lost during the war years, the reporter said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement that it had facilitated the return of 128 detainees from Saudi Arabia to Yemen at the request of the Joint Forces Command of the Arab Coalition and in agreement with the parties.

“This release is a positive step,” she said, hoping that “it would be the reason for the release and repatriation of more detainees in connection with the conflict.”

The Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen announced on Tuesday its intention to release 200 Houthi rebel prisoners and allow patients to travel from Sanaa, a move that supports moves to end the conflict in the country.

The decision came nearly two months after insurgent attacks against Saudi Arabia ceased, and shortly after a Saudi official announced that the kingdom was establishing a “channel of communication” with Tehran-backed rebels to end the 2014 war.

The Houthis agreed with the internationally recognized government, which is supported by the coalition, during talks in Sweden last December, to exchange about 15 thousand prisoners, but the agreement did not come to light.

The rebel-held capital’s airport since the start of the war in 2014 has been closed to flights since 2016, and the coalition that controls the airport’s movement allows only UN and humanitarian organizations to use it.

Before the repatriation began, the ICRC verified the identities of the detainees and “verified their desire to return to their homeland, through interviews with them in Khamis Mushait prison (southern Saudi Arabia) prior to their departure.”

Some of them were in need of medical attention and were accompanied by a doctor.

In Sana’a, 19 Yemeni Red Crescent volunteers and staff, including five first aid specialists, assisted patients and transported them in six ambulances from the airport to a health-care facility, according to the committee.

Tens of thousands of people, including a large number of civilians, have been killed in the power struggle in Yemen, according to humanitarian organizations, especially since coalition operations against the rebels began to halt their advance in neighboring Yemen in March 2015.

Nearly two weeks after coalition raids dwindled, 10 civilians were killed and 22 wounded, including four children and a woman, in an “unexplained” attack on a market in Saada, a rebel stronghold in the impoverished north, according to a statement by the UN Resident Coordinator’s office in Sanaa.

The attack took place one week after a similar incident in which 10 civilians were killed “in the same place,” according to the office, which said that “many of the dead and wounded are Ethiopians.”

In addition to the victims, 3.3 million people remain displaced and 24.1 million people, more than two-thirds of the population, need help, according to the United Nations, which describes the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as the worst in the world today.

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