Prisoner exchange marks new step towards peace in Yemen
RIYADH - Shiite rebels who control the Yemeni capital Sanaa have released nine Saudis in exchange for 109 Yemenis, the Saudi-led coalition fighting them said Monday, ahead of planned peace talks next month.
"Nine Saudi prisoners have been recovered and 109 Yemenis who were arrested in the military operations zone" near the border have been handed over, the coalition said in a statement.
The prisoner swap is the latest confidence-building measure in the lead-up to a planned ceasefire and peace negotiations next month.
The coalition statement did not specify whether the prisoners exchanged were combatants or civilians.
UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced last week that the combatants have agreed to a ceasefire from midnight on April 10, to be followed by peace talks in Kuwait on April 18.
Previous negotiations have failed and several ceasefires were never respected in the year since the Saudi-led coalition began air strikes in support of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
But a more conducive atmosphere prevails ahead of the new round of planned talks.
A mediation effort by tribal leaders earlier this month led to the exchange of one Saudi soldier for seven Yemenis detained by Saudi authorities at the border.
More than 90 people have been killed on the Saudi side of the frontier by shelling and in skirmishes over the past year.
But since the tribal mediation, the border zone has been relatively calm, the coalition has said, and the latest prisoner exchange occurred in this context.
The coalition said on Monday that it was satisfied with the lull along the frontier.
It said it hoped "to see it spread to zones of combat, in a way to facilitate the sending of humanitarian aid to all Yemen's territory" and support UN efforts to reach a political settlement.
Food and medical supplies have already been sent to the Huthi rebel stronghold of Saada, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri said.
In a rare incident that broke the relative calm, the Saudi Civil Defence agency said on Sunday that eight people, including four children, had been wounded by fire from Yemen.
The cross-border fire hit the Samita and Tiwal districts, Civil Defence said.
The Huthis seized Sanaa in September 2014 then advanced south, raising fears in Riyadh that the Zaidi Shiite rebels from Yemen's northern highlands would extend the influence of Shiite Iran in the kingdom's southern neighbour.
Hadi loyalists, backed by coalition ground troops, have since pushed the Huthis out of five southern provinces, including second city Aden, where the president has established a temporary capital.
But the rebels -- allied with elite troops loyal to Hadi's ousted predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh -- have held on to eight of Yemen's 22 provinces and heavy fighting has been raging in five others for months.
The UN says about 6,300 people have been killed in the war, more than half of them civilians, and more than 80 percent of Yemen's people need humanitarian assistance.
Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda have exploited the chaos, widening their footholds in Yemen's south and carrying out deadly attacks against both the Shiite rebels and Hadi's loyalists.
Human rights groups have criticised the high civilian death toll from the coalition's bombing campaign, and have called on Western governments to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia.