A Saudi-led military coalition said on Tuesday that it had released 200 Houthi prisoners to support peace efforts aimed at ending the nearly five-year war in Yemen.
The Western-backed coalition also said in a statement carried on Saudi state media that it would ease restrictions on Yemeni airspace to allow flights out of the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, to transport people requiring medical treatment abroad.
The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against Houthi rebels who ousted the internationally recognised government from power in Sanaa.
Saudi Arabia is seeking to exit the unpopular war in which it has taken sole responsibility for military efforts after the exit of its main coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates.
“The coalition leadership is keen to continue supporting efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen and to push forward the Stockholm agreement, including the deal related to the exchange of prisoners,” coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki said on Tuesday.
Maliki was referring to a prisoner swap agreed by Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Houthis last December at peace talks in Sweden that involves thousands of detainees, but which has stalled amid deep mistrust between the warring sides.
The Houthis had in September unilaterally released 350 prisoners, including three Saudis, after extending an offer to halt cross-border missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia if the coalition ended air strikes on Yemen.
Earlier this month, officials from both the coalition and the Houthis told the Associated Press that they were holding indirect, behind-the-scenes talks in Oman to end the war.
Oman has offered itself as a mediator in the past and Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman recently visited Muscat, the Omani capital.
The two sides have communicated via video conference over the past two months, according to Gamal Amer, a negotiator for the Houthis.
They have also talked through European intermediaries, according to three Houthi officials, AP said.
The talks were reported to have started in September, after drones struck a key crude processing plant in Saudi Arabia and dramatically cut into global oil supplies.
Death toll underestimated
The fighting in Yemen has driven millions to the brink of famine in what has been deemed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the United Nations.
According to a report last month by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), a American NGO, more than 100,000 people have died as a result of the war in Yemen.
Based on data collected from a variety of sources, including the UN, the ACLED said the death toll from the war was considerably higher than most previous estimates.
Out of the over 100,000 people estimated to have been killed since 2015, at least 12,000 civilians were killed in direct attacks, the ACLED said.
Already, 2019 has so far been the second deadliest year of the conflict, with more than 20,000 deaths reported.
By 2020, ACLED estimated that 102,000 will have been killed as a direct result of violence.
Aid agency Save the Children has estimated that at least 85,000 children had died of severe acute malnutrition since the war began based on UN data up to 2018.