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Yemen rebels free 290 prisoners in move hailed by UN, ICRC

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Sanaa (AFP)

Yemen's Huthi rebels have freed 290 prisoners, including dozens of survivors from a Saudi-led coalition strike on a detention centre earlier this month, the ICRC said Monday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the move as "a positive step that will hopefully revive the release, transfer and repatriation of conflict-related detainees" under a deal struck last year between the rebels and Yemen's government.

The Huthis recently announced the capture of hundreds of Yemeni loyalist forces in an August offensive near the Saudi border, but they were not among those freed on Monday.

The United Nations' special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, welcomed the initiative to "unilaterally release detainees".

"I hope this step will lead to further initiatives that will facilitate the exchange of all the conflict-related detainees as per the Stockholm Agreement," Griffiths said, referring to the 2018 accord.

He called on all parties to work together to speed up the release of prisoners, saying they and their families had "endured profound pain and suffering."

In a statement, he urged the parties to meet at the "nearest opportunity" to resume discussions on future exchanges.

The Huthis' own announcement on the prisoner release said there were 350 in the group, including three Saudis.

"We have presented to the United Nations a unilateral initiative to release 350 prisoners," Abdel Kader Mortaza, the Huthi official in charge of prisoner affairs, said at a press conference in Sanaa.

- 'Break the deadlock' -

Mortaza reiterated Huthi claims that they had taken prisoner more than 2,000 fighters, including Saudi soldiers, in the August offensive near the southern Saudi region of Najran.

Footage aired by the Huthis on Sunday, which had been billed as showing proof of the mass capture, was short on details.

A government source confirmed to AFP that 200 prisoners were killed in the fighting, but said that the number of prisoners taken was less than the Huthis claimed, estimating the number to be about 1,300 Yemeni soldiers.

Mortaza said the fighters were held in what he described as the rebels' largest "operation to capture prisoners" and that they would be treated "humanely".

However, he described Monday's release of prisoners as designed to "break the deadlock that has prevailed for several months".

"This initiative reasserts our seriousness and credibility when it comes to the implementation of the (Sweden) agreement," Mortaza told AFP.

"We urge the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to press the other side into taking a similar step or give us the same number of their prisoners in any future deal."

Years of conflict in Yemen have killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians.

Since the Saudi-led coalition intervened to back up the government in 2015, the fighting has plunged the country -- the poorest in the Arab world -- into what the UN calls the globe's worst humanitarian crisis.

In early September, the coalition struck a former college in the western city of Dhamar, used by the Huthis as a detention centre. The Red Cross said over 100 people were killed.

Riyadh said the attack was aimed at a "legitimate military target" and that the site was not on any no-strike list.

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