Yemen's Houthis offer Saudi-backed government new prisoner swap deal

CAIRO (Reuters) - The Houthi movement in control of Yemen’s capital on Thursday offered the internationally recognized Yemeni government a prisoner swap involving 2,000 detainees after the group unilaterally freed hundreds of prisoners last month.

FILE PHOTO: Detainees wait for their release by the Houthis at the central prison of Sanaa, Yemen September 30, 2019. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

It was the latest gesture toward easing tensions by the Iran-aligned Houthis who have for over four years been battling a Saudi-led military coalition loyal to the Yemeni government that was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014.

“We told the local mediators that we are ready to implement a prisoner exchange within one week. We are waiting for the other side to respond,” the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee, Abdul Qader al-Murtada, was quoted as saying by Houthi-run Al Masirah TV.

He said a deal would cover 2,000 prisoners in “a first phase”.

There was no immediate response from the Yemeni government.

The Houthis last month offered to stop launching missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia if the Sunni Muslim coalition ended air strikes on Yemen. They later released hundreds of prisoners in a move welcomed by the United Nations which is trying to revive a stalled peace process.

Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Houthis agreed last December to a U.N.-brokered deal to exchange some 15,000 prisoners as part of trust building measures between the warring parties, but it has yet to be implemented.

The Houthi truce offer was extended after the movement claimed responsibility for Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Riyadh rejected the claim and instead blamed its regional foe Shi’ite Muslim Iran, a charge Tehran denies.

The coalition has yet to respond to the ceasefire offer but senior Saudi officials have said they viewed it “positively”.

The easing of Saudi-Houthi tensions would bolster U.N. efforts to pave the way for political talks to end the war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed millions to the brink of famine in Yemen.

The coalition, which is supported by Western states, began its campaign against the Houthis in March 2015 but the conflict, which is widely seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran, has been in military stalemate for years.

The Houthis, who control most big urban centers, deny being puppets of Iran and say they are fighting a corrupt system.

Reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; editing by Grant McCool