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by Jamil Nasser and Mohamad Ali Harissi in Dubai

Yemen prisoner swap starts as truce talks set for second round

The former defence minister in Yemen's internionally recognised government, Mahmud al-Subaihi (C) and a brother of its former president, Nasser Mansur al-Hadi (top), were the most high-ranking prisoners released by the rebels in the exchange. ©AFP

Sanaa (AFP) - Hundreds of captives from Yemen's brutal civil war were reunited with friends and family as a major prisoner swap started on Friday, hours after truce talks broke up with an agreement to meet again.

As hopes rise of an end to Yemen's devastating eight-year war, which pits Iran-backed rebels against a Saudi-led coalition, 318 prisoners flew on four flights between government-controlled Aden and the Huthi-held capital, Sanaa.

Sixty-nine flew from Sanaa to Aden, and another 249 went in the opposite direction, on the first day of a three-day operation that will see the release of nearly 900 detainees, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

On Friday, large crowds gathered at Yemen's main airports.

"I have been waiting for this day for five years," Mohammed Al-Qubati said in Sanaa."I'm waiting for my father and my cousin."

In Aden, there were celebrations when Yemen's former defence minister Mahmud al-Subaihi, and the brother of the ex-president, Major General Nasser Mansur Hadi, emerged from the first plane.

The transfers will resume early Saturday with at least three flights planned between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the ICRC added.

Sixteen Saudis and three Sudanese nationals will be transferred from Sanaa to Riyadh, said Majid Fadail, spokesman for the government delegation negotiating the exchange. 

Hadi, the ex-president's brother, landed in Riyadh on Friday night on board an aircraft carrying other Yemenis freed by Huthi rebels, Saudi media reported. 

Diplomatic 'momentum'

The exchange and the truce negotiations come a month after Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties, sparking a wave of rapprochement across the troubled region.

A Saudi delegation led by ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber left Sanaa late on Thursday without a finalised truce but with plans for more talks, according to Huthi and Yemeni government sources.

"There is an initial agreement on a truce that should be announced later on, if finalised," a Huthi official said on condition of anonymity.The information was confirmed by a government source.

The Huthis' chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdusalam, called the talks "serious and positive" and said he was "hoping to complete the discussion of outstanding issues at a later time".

The rebels seized Sanaa in 2014, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee and triggering the Saudi-led military intervention the following March.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by direct and indirect causes in a war that has resulted in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.

However, a six-month, UN-brokered truce that officially lapsed in October is still largely holding as diplomatic efforts increase for a renewed ceasefire.

Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, hailed the prisoner release ahead of next week's Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

"Today, hundreds of Yemeni families get to celebrate Eid with their loved ones because the parties negotiated and reached an agreement," he said. 

"I hope this spirit is reflected in ongoing efforts to advance a comprehensive political solution.Thousands more families are still waiting to be reunited with their loved ones."

Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC's regional director, called the prisoner releases a "confidence-building measure" that are "part of a bigger initiative" to de-escalate the war. 

"It gives a sense of momentum" to efforts to end the war, he said in a video conference.

'Significant step'

During the exchange, the Huthis will release a total of 181 prisoners, including Saudis and Sudanese, in return for 706 people held by government forces.

The transfers have been welcomed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and Washington, which praised Friday's exchange as a "breakthrough". 

"We encourage all parties to further consolidate these positive trends and ultimately forge a diplomatic resolution," US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

But Nadwa Dawsari of the Middle East Institute think tank cautioned against over-optimism.

"A prisoner swap by itself is a welcome step.However, let's not conflate that with peace," she said.

"Only releasing all prisoners -- civilians and non civilians -- unconditionally by the parties of the conflict will indicate serious commitment to peace."

Among other moves since their Chinese-brokered thaw, delegations from Iran and Saudi Arabia have exchanged visits this week to pave the way for reopening diplomatic missions.

On Friday, ministers and top officials from nine Arab countries gathered in Saudi Arabia to discuss the 12-year suspension from the Arab League of Iran ally Syria over its bloody civil war.

Yemen's prisoner exchange was sealed during talks in Switzerland just days after the Saudi-Iran detente was announced.

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