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Saudi unilaterally releases detainees to Yemen amid peace push

DUBAI, April 17 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Monday released 104 detainees to Yemen, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a Saudi-led coalition said, in a unilateral move that follows simultaneous detainee exchanges between Yemen’s warring parties.

The military coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Iran-aligned Houthis ousted the government from the capital Sanaa, said the additional release was to support dialogue in continuing efforts to end Yemen’s conflict.

A Saudi delegation, which is seeking a permanent ceasefire deal to end military involvement in the war, on Thursday concluded peace talks in Sanaa with the Houthi group, whose top negotiator said talks had made progress and further discussions would be held to iron out remaining differences.

The head of Yemen’s Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, said on Saturday another round of talks would come after the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which starts later this week, Yemen’s SABA news reported.

“I believe we have not seen such a serious opportunity for making progress towards ending the conflict in eight years. But the tide could still turn unless the parties take bolder steps yet towards peace,” U.N. Yemen mediator Hans Grundberg told the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

He told the 15-member council that there needed to be “a Yemeni-owned ceasefire that durably stops the violence, ensures the safety and security of Yemenis, and builds trust for a political process”.

A three-day operation between six cities in Yemen and Saudi Arabia overseen by the ICRC to return nearly 900 detainees held in relation to the conflict ended on Sunday, a significant confidence-building measure amid the peace talks between Saudi envoys and Houthi officials.

Yemen’s conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry, has widely been seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Riyadh and Tehran last month agreed to restore diplomatic ties severed in 2016, raising hopes that Yemen’s peace process would see progress.

The Houthis’ deputy foreign minister on Twitter said the 104 Yemenis were to be released outside of that main prisoner exchange deal.

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Warring parties agreed at negotiations in Switzerland last month to free 887 detainees and to meet again in May to discuss further releases.

Negotiators had hoped for an “all for all” deal involving all remaining detainees during talks, the latest in a series of meetings that led to releases of prisoners in 2022 and 2020 under a U.N.-mediated deal known as the Stockholm Agreement.

The coalition said in a statement on state news agency SPA it would like to see the detainee issue concluded.

“Any respite for an exhausted population, including through release operations like these, is something to be supported. But ultimately, only a political solution will end the suffering in Yemen”, said Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC’s regional director.

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