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Yemen: Reports of new Saudi airstrikes, prisoner swap during ceasefire

Saudi-led jet fighters have hit Houthi rebel positions in Yemen's central and southwest regions hours after a ceasefire began. But in a more hopeful sign, reports say the warring factions have agreed to a prisoner swap.

Yemen's ceasefire was broadly holding after more than 24 hours on Wednesday, despite allegations of breaches from both sides in the conflict.

Residents and tribal sources in the central Yemeni province of Mareb and a southwestern city reported airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi militants on Wednesday.

The air raids began after the rebels launched rockets in the besieged city of Taiz, they said, within 24 hours of the start of

the latest ceasefire at midday on Tuesday.

"Coalition planes launched an air strike on the positions of Houthi and Saleh forces ... after they repeatedly violated the ceasefire," a tribal source told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition accused the Houthis of breaching the ceasefire from its very first hours, saying that it had "responded to these violations."

The warring parties had agreed to lay down their arms as peace talks got underway in Switzerland between representatives of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government and the dominant Houthi group.

Ceasefire holds - just

But within hours, both sides accused the other of violating the terms of the truce, which is sponsored by the United Nations. The Associated Press (AP) reported that 42 people have been killed since the firing was supposed to have stopped.

AP quoted Yemeni security officials as saying that fighting continued in the provinces of Ibb, Bayda, Marib, Jawf, and Taiz. In the besieged city of Taiz, shelling by Shiite rebels killed six civilians, it said.

The Houthi-controlled Saba news agency cited a spokesman for Yemeni forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the Houthis, as saying that a "serious escalation by land, sea and air is taking place by the alliance in various areas."

The spokesman said that air raids by a Saudi-led alliance had not stopped, that strikes from the sea were taking place on the Red Sea port city of Hodaida, while ground forces continued to carry out attacks on Taiz city.

Fighting in Taiz

Residents in Taiz described heavy clashes despite the start of the ceasefire on Tuesday

Prisoner swap

Meanwhile, tribal and military sources said on Wednesday that hundreds of captured fighters from both sides were expected to be exchanged within a few hours.

Mokhtar al-Rabbash, a member of the prisoners' affairs committee, which is close to the government, said an agreement was in place to swap 375 rebel detainees for 285 fighters loyal to internationally-recognized President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Reports varied slightly on the precise numbers of prisoners to be exchanged.

The deal follows weeks of mediation and is being seen as a positive sign that both sides are more committed to this round of peace talks.

An official from the Houthi-run prison authority in the capital Sanaa told Reuters that southern prisoners had boarded buses on their way to the exchange venue in central Yemen.

Witnesses in Aden said they saw buses guarded by local fighters traveling through the city, also apparently heading to the exchange venue.

But the International Red Cross in Sanaa, which was involved in a previous prison swap, said it was "not aware of such an exchange".

Civilians still at risk

Several other ceasefires, which aid agencies say are vital to deliver essential humanitarian supplies to millions of Yemenis, have failed.

Yemen's conflict, which intensified in March, has pitted the rebels and army units loyal to former President Saleh against forces of the internationally recognized Hadi government, allied with southern separatists, religious extremists and other militants.

The government is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, which on Tuesday announced plans to

play a bigger role in global conflicts.

The fighting has been exacerbated by

the presence of al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State" group,

which has carried out several deadly attacks and attempted to grab land.

mm/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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