Rebels who control the Yemeni capital Sanaa have released nine Saudis in exchange for 109 Yemenis, the Riyadh-led coalition fighting them said on Monday, in the latest sign of tensions easing before peace talks.
“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.
It did not specify whether the prisoners were combatants or civilians.
The swap follows another exchange of one Saudi soldier for seven Yemenis earlier this month amid tribal mediation that has helped reduce violence along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
Efforts have been building to bring an end to the devastating conflict in Yemen, a year after the Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced last week that the combatants have agreed to a cessation of hostilities from midnight on April 10, followed by talks in Kuwait on April 18.
Previous negotiations have failed and earlier ceasefires were not respected, but analysts say a more conducive atmosphere prevails ahead of the new round of talks.
Andreas Krieg of the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College London said the prisoner swap is “a sign of Saudi goodwill” before the Kuwait negotiations.
It signals to the Houthis that Riyadh and its allies are “willing to make compromises to bring these talks to a successful end,” said Krieg, who also teaches at the Qatari Armed Forces Staff College.
Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said “there is widespread hope that the upcoming Kuwait talks will function as a step in the right direction.”
The coalition said on Monday that border areas remained relatively calm.
It said it hoped to see the lull “spread to combat zones in order to facilitate the sending of humanitarian aid to all of Yemen’s territory” and to support UN efforts to reach a political settlement.
In a rare incident that broke the calm, the Saudi Civil Defence agency said on Sunday that eight people, including four children, had been wounded by fire from Yemen. More than 90 people have been killed on the Saudi side of the frontier by shelling and in skirmishes over the past year. The Houthis seized Sanaa in September 2014 then advanced south, raising fears in Riyadh that the rebels would extend the influence of Shiite Iran in the kingdom’s southern neighbour.
Local forces backed by coalition ground troops have since pushed the Houthis out of five southern provinces and second city Aden, where President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi has established a temporary capital.
But the rebelsâ€”allied with elite troops loyal to Hadi’s ousted predecessor Ali Abdullah Salehâ€”have held on elsewhere including the capital.
The United Nations says about 6,300 people have been killed in the war, more than half of them civilians.
On Sunday the World Health Organization said Yemen’s civilians were undergoing “immeasurable suffering”, including almost 2.5 million internally displaced.
Sunni extremists of the IS 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.