Yemen's government and Houthi rebels freed more than 200 detainees on Sunday, including four prominent journalists held by the rebels since 2015, to complete a three-day prisoner exchange that has been hailed as a significant step towards ending more than eight years of civil war.
The release of nearly 900 detainees on both sides, facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, is the most significant prisoner exchange since October 2020 when more than 1,000 prisoners were freed.
The exchange on Sunday began with planes carrying detainees taking off at the same time from the Houthi rebel-held capital of Sanaa and the government-controlled northern city of Marib, the ICRC said.
"Forty-eight former detainees were on board the Marib-Sanaa flight, and 42 on the Sanaa-Marib flight," ICRC media adviser Jessica Moussan told AFP.
Three other flights between the two cities completed the deal reached in Switzerland last month to exchange 181 government forces for 706 rebels, just before the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Fitr.
Those freed since Friday include Maj Gen Mahmoud Al Subaihi, who was defence minister when the war began, and Nasser Mansour Hadi, the brother of former Yemeni President Abdrabo Mansur Hadi.
Gen Al Subaihi was kidnapped in March 2015 following an ambush, along with 16 officers who were with him.
He arrived at Aden airport on Friday, along with Mr Hadi and Mohammad Abdullah Saleh, brother of the deputy chairman of Yemen's Presidential Leadership Council, Yemen's Vice President Tareq Mohammad Abdullah Saleh.
"We thank God for taking us out from the darkness and into the light and we thank the National Resistance and the army and the coalition in fighting this cancerous tumour that's present on our soil," Mr Saleh told reporters in Aden, the government's temporary base.
A government official told The National that the release of the prominent officials would advance efforts to end the conflict.
“This is the breaking point, once these names have been released then the peace process can move forward. We will do anything to bring peace once these people are out,” the official said.
Yemeni journalists released
The four journalists freed on Sunday had been sentenced to death by a rebel-controlled court in what Amnesty International described as a "grossly unfair" trial.
Tawfiq Al Mansouri, who was detained in 2015 and sentenced to death in April 2020, was denied medical care despite having serious health conditions, his family said.
The rebels also detained Akram Al Walidi, Abdelkhaleq Amran and Hareth Hamid in 2015, and held them without charge until December 2018.
They were "held incommunicado at times and subjected to a range of human rights abuses, including enforced disappearance, solitary confinement, beatings and denial of access to health care", Amnesty said.
The four men were to be released as part of the 2020 prisoner exchange but the Houthis rejected this.
Their lawyer at the time said the Houthis denied the four men visits from their families and lawyers, subjected them to cruel treatment, and deprived them of access to adequate and timely medical care.