A mass prisoner exchange is under way between Houthi fighters and government forces in Yemen amid UN-sponsored talks to end the fighting in the Arabian Peninsula country.
Expectations for a deal at the peace talks in Switzerland are low as both sides seem to be failing to honour a week-long ceasefire.
There were reports on Wednesday of heavy fighting between pro-government forces and Houthis around the city of Taiz in central Yemen.
The swap was taking place a day after the truce came into force to halt fighting in nine months of civil war between the Iran-allied Houthis, based in Yemen’s north, and Arab coalition-backed fighters loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Khaled al-Yamani, Yemeni ambassador to the UN, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that government forces would respect the ceasefire even in case of violations from the Houthi side.
“We think that this is the only option for us to go down the path of peace and achieve peaceful resolution to the conflict in Yemen,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Swiss city of Biel, said the prisoner swap was “undoubtedly a positive development” in the civil war, which has killed almost 6,000 people and led to a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.
“The prisoner swap is taking place, mediated by tribes on the ground,” she said.
She said the exchange did not appear to be in response to the Yemeni government’s demands for Houthis to release a number of senior officials in their custody.
Earlier, Mokhtar al-Rabbash, a member of the prisoners’ affairs committee, which is close to the Yemeni government, confirmed that an agreement was in place to swap 375 opposition fighters for 285 pro-Hadi soldiers.
An official of the Houthi-run prisons authority in the capital, Sanaa, said southern prisoners boarded buses on their way to the swap venue in central Yemen.
Witnesses in Aden said they saw buses guarded by local fighters travelling through the city, apparently heading to the exchange venue, the Reuters news agency reported.
Despite the swap deal, the two sides have accused each other of violating the truce, which includes a pause in air strikes by the Arab coalition.
The Houthi-controlled Saba news agency quoted Brigadier-General Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for Yemeni forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni president, as saying that a “serious escalation by land, sea and air is taking place by the alliance in various areas”.
Saleh is currently allied with the Houthis.
Luqman said strikes from the sea were being launched on the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, ground forces were carrying out attacks on Taiz, and air strikes by the Arab coalition had not stopped.
“We will not stay hand-tied but we will respond strongly towards the breaches that are taking place by the alliance and their mercenaries,” Luqman said.
On the other hand, the Hadi-run sabanew.net news agency blamed the deaths of five loyalist fighters and three civilians on Houthi shelling in Taiz shortly after the ceasefire began.
The Saudi daily Al-Riyadh quoted Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asseri, the Arab coalition spokesman, as saying that forces were committed to the ceasefire but were also ready to respond to any violation by the Houthis.
Despite the mutual accusations, Al Jazeera’s Khodr said the two groups were still moving ahead with the peace talks in Switzerland.
“The fact that we are in day two and no one has walked out is progress in itself,” she said.