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Saudi-led coalition says to free 200 Yemen rebels amid peace push

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Riyadh (AFP)

A Saudi-led military coalition said Tuesday it will release 200 Yemeni rebels and permit some flights from the insurgent-held capital Sanaa, as efforts to end the nearly five-year conflict gain momentum.

The initiatives coincide with a lull in Huthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and come after a senior official in Riyadh this month said it had an "open channel" with the Iran-aligned rebels.

Patients needing medical care will be allowed to be flown out of Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016, coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said in a statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The coalition has decided "to release 200 prisoners of the Huthi militia" and will facilitate flights from Sanaa for "people in need of medical care" in cooperation with the World Health Organization, the statement added.

The decision was hailed by the Huthis, with senior leader Mohammed Ali al-Huthi calling for a "mass reception" to welcome the released rebels.

"We welcome the coalition decision... (and) call for them to end torture and abuse until all detainees and prisoners are freed," al-Huthi, a senior figure in the rebels' political leadership, said on Twitter.

The Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015 in support of the country's internationally recognised government.

It reportedly hoped for a quick win against the Huthis, but instead waded into a quagmire that has cost it billions of dollars and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Riyadh now appears buoyed by a power sharing agreement it brokered earlier this month in a separate conflict between Yemen's internationally recognised government and southern separatists, which observers said could pave the way for a wider peace deal in the multi-faceted war.

Further raising hopes, a senior official in Riyadh subsequently said the Saudis have established an "open channel" with the Huthi rebels.

"We don't close our doors with the Huthis," the official, who declined to be named, told reporters.

- 'Something is changing' -

Yemen, in the grip of what the UN has termed the world's worst humanitarian crisis, is widely seen as a proxy battlefront between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran.

Tuesday's development "is positive proof that the Saudi-Huthi talks are real and having at least a limited tangible impact," Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP.

"This is more bad news for the rebels' Iranian backers."

The development follows a lull in recent weeks after a spike in rebel missile and drone attacks over the summer launched from Yemeni territory on Saudi cities.

Last Friday, UN envoy Martin Griffiths said the rate of coalition air strikes had sharply fallen over the past two weeks, in an apparent sign that "something is changing in Yemen".

In a sign of the limits to the new mood however, air raids on Monday by the Saudi-led coalition killed eight Huthi rebels near the key western port of Hodeidah, according to local officials.

Yemen's warring parties agreed under a deal brokered in Sweden last December to exchange 15,000 prisoners, but the accord has not been fully implemented.

The coalition freed seven Huthi prisoners in January, and the rebels released 290 coalition fighters in September.

The Huthis hold Sanaa while the Saudi led-military coalition controls Yemen's maritime borders and airspace.

Last year, wounded rebels were flown out of Sanaa for treatment, in what was seen as a key step ahead of the December peace talks.

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