SANAA- Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group on Monday released hundreds of Yemeni prisoners in a unilateral move the United Nations hoped would help revive a stalled peace process.
“Our initiative proves our credibility in implementing the Sweden agreement and we call on the other party to take a comparable step,” the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee, Abdul Qader al-Murtada, told reporters at Sanaa’s central prison.
Dozens of men in clean, new, white clothing walked out of the prison and lined up outside, supervised by men in military uniforms.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which facilitated the release, said 290 Yemeni nationals were transferred from the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa to their homes.
The Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital, agreed in Sweden in December with the Saudi-backed government to swap prisoners as a confidence-building step, but the arrangement has been stalled as the sides struggled to agree on implementation. Each side was meant to release around 7,000 prisoners.
The Houthis said on Monday they were releasing “350 prisoners and detainees” from the list prepared for the deal under the supervision of the United Nations. Those released included three Saudis, the Houthis said.
The U.N Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths called on all parties to meet soon to discuss prisoner exchanges.
“I hope this step will lead to further initiatives that will facilitate the exchange of all the conflict-related detainees as per the Stockholm Agreement,” he said.
Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC Director for Near and Middle East, said in a statement: “The humanitarian situation in Yemen is catastrophic and any momentum towards easing the hardship is a positive development.”
A Saudi-led Sunni Muslim coalition, which receives arms and intelligence from Western countries, intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis ousted the Yemeni government from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of famine. The United Nations calls it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The Houthis have claimed responsibility for a Sept. 14 attack on a Saudi crude oil processing plant that cut off around 5% of global oil supplies.
The Houthis, who control most major urban areas in Yemen, said on Sept. 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.