An exchange of more than 800 prisoners linked to Yemen’s long-running war began on Friday, the International Committee for the Red Cross said.
Around 318 detainees were released on Friday, with a total of 869 expected to be released across a three-day operation.
Dozens of former prisoners were greeted by family members, a marching band and traditional dancers, wearing ribbons with the colours of the Yemeni flag as they landed in the Houthi-held capital of Yemen, Sanaa.
A line of Houthi political leaders also greeted the detainees with hugs and kisses.
It is set to be the most significant prisoner exchange since the Saudi Arabian-led coalition and their rivals, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, released more than 1,000 individuals in October 2020.
The Red Cross’ regional director, Fabrizio Carboni, said the release “gives a sense of momentum” for efforts to end the war, but there are believed to still be thousands more prisoners of war.
“This will show that there is no way back to violence,” Mr Carboni told journalists.
How did the conflict in Yemen begin?
Yemen’s conflict began in 2014 when the Iranian Houthis seized Sanaa and much of the country’s north. The government then fled to the south and then into exile in Saudi Arabia.
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The takeover prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later and the conflict turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the US providing intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia.
However, international criticism over Saudi airstrikes killing civilians saw the US pull back its support.
More than 150,000 people have been killed during the war, including both soldiers and civilians, creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with 80% of Yemen’s population dependent on humanitarian aid.
What does this new deal involve?
The deal calls for the Houthis to release more than 180 prisoners, including Saudi and Sudanese troops fighting with the Saudi-led coalition, and four Yemeni journalists.
The journalists were detained in recent years and sentenced to death by a Houthi-controlled court, in a trial described by human rights organisation, Amnesty International, as “grossly unfair”.
The deal also includes the release of top military officials held by the Houthis since the start of the war.
Among those released on Friday were former defence minister when the war erupted, Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and Nasser Mansour Hadi, the brother of former Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
In return, the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government are scheduled to release more than 700 Houthis, according to the rebels.
This follows another deal last month which saw Saudi Arabia and Iran restore ties, which invigorated hopes of a negotiation settlement.