Some 128 Huthi rebels detained in Saudi Arabia were released and flown to the Yemeni capital on Thursday, as efforts to end the five-year conflict gain momentum.

An AFP correspondent saw the prisoners arriving in Sanaa on three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) planes and being met at the airport by rebel commanders and some family members.

Some prisoners were helped off the plane into wheelchairs, while others lifted their white robes to show sores to an AFP photographer.

"The treatment we received (in Saudi Arabia) was very bad," 35-year-old Abdel Raqib al-Abadi told AFP.

He said he hoped for peace but added if "Saudi aggression" continued, the war would continue "until victory".

The mother of another former detainee told AFP: "My feelings are indescribable. May God return all the other wounded and prisoners to their mothers and families."

The Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen said earlier this week that it would release 200 Huthi prisoners and also allow patients needing medical care to be flown out of Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016.

Riyadh and its allies intervened in the Yemen war in March 2015 to back the internationally recognised government, shortly after the Iran-backed Huthi rebels seized Sanaa.

The prisoners released Thursday had been captured in various parts of Yemen between 2015 and earlier this year.

"The ICRC sees the release as a positive step and hopes that it will spur further releases and repatriations of conflict-related detainees," the global body said in a statement.

It said the Yemen Red Crescent had transferred some of the released prisoners to a medical facility for check-ups.

Yemeni Huthi prisoners were greeted upon their arrival at the airport of the capital Sanaa on Thursday, following their release by Saudi Arabia
Yemeni Huthi prisoners were greeted upon their arrival at the airport of the capital Sanaa on Thursday, following their release by Saudi Arabia AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS

Outside the main gate of the airport, hundreds of people gathered to see the detainees and check if they were people they knew who had gone missing during the war.

On Tuesday, United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed the coalition's decision to release the rebels after meeting with Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi deputy defence minister.

"Griffiths thanked (Saudi Arabia) for announcing the release of the 200 detainees and the opening of Sanaa airport for mercy flights that would allow Yemenis to receive much-needed medical treatment abroad," his office tweeted.

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-backed rebels.

However, sporadic violence continues on the ground, with at least 10 civilians killed and 22 wounded, including four children and a woman in an attack on Wednesday in a market in northern Saada, the UN said.

The attack came a week after a similar incident that killed 10 civilians, including Ethiopian migrants, in the same location, it added.

"Every indiscriminate attack on civilians violates international humanitarian law. None of these can be justified," Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement.

The decision to repatriate the detainees has been hailed by the Huthis, with senior official Mohammed Ali al-Huthi calling for a "mass reception" to welcome the released rebels.

Since 2015, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced by Yemen's conflict, which the UN has termed the world's worst humanitarian crisis.