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Abdul Karim Alzarei and Mohammad Huwais with correspondents in Aden

'Born again': relief, defiance as Yemen prisoners released

Released prisoners prayed on the tarmac at Sanaa airport. ©AFP

Sanaa (AFP) - Some prayed on the tarmac and others raised fists of defiance as prisoners from Yemen's grinding war were released on either side of the country's divide on Friday.

Families in the capital Sanaa, held by the Huthi rebels, and government-controlled Aden were able to celebrate the end of their long wait as a major prisoner exchange got under way.

After years in captivity, more than 300 rebel and pro-government fighters were flown between the two cities -- Sanaa in the north, and Aden on the south coast.

In total, nearly 900 prisoners will be released during the three-day operation, which is taking place ahead of next week's Eid al-Fitr Muslim holiday.

"We have two celebrations," Yahya Abulkarra told AFP from Sanaa's airport, where he was waiting to see his son for the first time in five years.

"Today is the great celebration, the day our sons are released," he said, his eyes fixed on the door of a plane that had just landed.

The arrivals sparked scenes of jubilation and added to a sense of optimism following truce talks between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Huthis this week.

The Huthis seized control of Sanaa in 2014, prompting a Saudi-led intervention months later.The war has left hundreds of thousands dead, through direct and indirect causes, and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Outside Sanaa's airport, hundreds of people gathered by the roadside, some sitting in the shade of trees, before the exchange began.

Near the runway, the waiting crowd erupted into cheers, tossing rice and flower petals into the air, as passengers disembarked from their plane from Aden. 

"My son has been imprisoned since 2018," said Abdullah al-Hajouri."My heart longs to see him."

'Great joy'

Freed Huthi fighters raised their fists in a gesture of bravado as they were welcomed by relatives and comrades dressed in military garb.

"We have come out of the darkness and into the light," said Mohamed Ahmed, a Huthi fighter who spent nearly six years in captivity.

Hamid Hussein, who was also released Friday, said his fighting days are not over.

"We will return to the front, God willing," the freed rebel said. 

Some freed prisoners prostrated themselves on the tarmac and prayed as soon as they disembarked.

In Aden, relatives also thronged the airport, impatiently awaiting loved ones who had been held by the rebels.

"Our feelings cannot be described at this moment," said Naser Al-Dhalei, as he waited for a relative.

Saleh Al-Jamzi, whose son had languished in Huthi prisons for four years, told AFP: "Thank God we reached this moment.

"Today, they are born again."

His son, Salim, echoed the sentiment. 

"I feel a great joy that I cannot describe to you," he said after landing.

"We ask God to release the rest of the prisoners."

As they waited, freed Huthi rebels wearing traditional headgear and wraparound skirts descended from buses, one in a wheelchair, and prepared to board their flight to Sanaa.

There was also cheering in the port city of Hodeida after Mahfoudh Khadem discovered that his son -- a Huthi fighter -- had reached Sanaa on Friday.

Khadem had been told years ago that his son had died in prison.

"I knew that he was still alive," he told AFP."My feeling was right."

"I could not travel to Sanaa today, but I was told that Ahmed is there now."

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