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article imageSaudi-led coalition frees 7 Yemen rebels, but issues threat

By Shatha Yaish (AFP)     Jan 30, 2019 in World

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen released seven Huthi prisoners on Wednesday and returned them to Sanaa, the UN said, even as the military alliance said it could use renewed force against the rebels.

The seven Huthis were transferred from the Saudi capital Riyadh to rebel-held Sanaa by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN said.

The office of UN envoy Martin Griffiths said he hoped that the move would give rise to a "rapid implementation of the prisoner exchange agreement" reached as part of a truce deal negotiated between Yemen's Saudi-backed government and the Iran-aligned rebels in Sweden last month.

The ICRC, which is overseeing the prisoner exchange process between the warring sides, confirmed it had flown seven Yemenis to Sanaa.

"Another hope for many families separated by the conflict in Yemen," the organisation wrote on Twitter.

But the coalition warned later Wednesday it was still prepared to use "force" against the Huthis to make the rebels abide by the UN-backed truce deal.

"The coalition is prepared to use... force to prod Huthi compliance with (the) Stockholm agreement," a coalition source told AFP.

- 'Humanitarian gesture' -

The return of the Huthi detainees came a day after the rebels released the first prisoner under the deal between the rebels and the Saudi-backed government.

"The special envoy welcomes the unconditional release" of a sick Saudi prisoner, Griffiths' office had said on Twitter on Tuesday, adding that he hoped to see the two parties make more humanitarian gestures.

The ICRC, which also supervised Tuesday's operation, confirmed the transfer from Sanaa to Riyadh of the Saudi soldier.

The organisation released a video showing a man on a stretcher being carried onto a Red Cross plane.

Rebel media Al-Masirah named the soldier as Mussa al-Awaji, and said he had been released "without conditions, as a humanitarian gesture".

The prisoner swap is the first to take place since the truce that aims to end Yemen's conflict which has left millions at risk of starvation.

Saudi prisoner Musa al-Awaji lies on a stretcher as members of the International Committee of the Re...
Saudi prisoner Musa al-Awaji lies on a stretcher as members of the International Committee of the Red Cross prepare him to board a plane at Sanaa airport following his release by Yemen's Huthi rebels, on January 29, 2019

The two parties agreed to exchange 15,000 detainees and have submitted lists of prisoners' names to UN mediators.

The deal brokered in Sweden also involves a ceasefire in the lifeline port city of Hodeida, which came into force on December 18 but has been sporadically breached.

The rival camps were supposed to redeploy forces by January 7, but that commitment has not yet been observed.

However, the prisoner exchanges this week are "a step in the right direction", said Mirella Hodeib, ICRC's spokeswoman in Sanaa.

"It gives hope and lifts numerous families" whose members have been separated by Yemen's war, she said.

"We hope that the belligerent parties will put in place the agreement on definitive lists to start the exchange operation on a larger scale", Hodeib added.

Some 10,000 people have been killed since the Saudi coalition intervened nearly four years ago, according to the World Health Organization, although rights groups say the death toll could be five times higher.

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