Two Americans have been freed from captivity in Yemen as more than 200 supporters of the country’s Houthi rebels are being allowed to return home, in an apparent swap involving Saudi Arabia and Oman.
The White House announced the release of US citizens Sandra Loli and Mikael Gidada on Wednesday, saying that the two had been held captive by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control much of Yemen including its capital Sanaa.
The rebels also sent back the remains of a third American, Bilal Fateen, the White House said, without describing the circumstances of how he died.
Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, stopped short of describing an exchange of people but thanked Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said “for their efforts to secure the release of our citizens”.
US President Donald Trump “continues to prioritise securing the release and repatriation of Americans held hostage abroad,” O’Brien said in a statement.
“We will not rest until those held are home with their loved ones,” he said.
Trump, struggling in polls ahead of November 3 elections, has highlighted efforts to free hostages and punish hostage-takers, with his campaign pointing to backing by the parents of Kayla Mueller, a relief worker killed after being abducted by ISIL (ISIS) fighters in Syria in 2013.
Little had been known about the Americans held in Yemen until the announcement of their release.
The Wall Street Journal, quoting a senior White House official said to have arranged the deal, said Loli was a humanitarian worker seized three years ago and Gidada was a businessman detained for about one year.
Houthi leaders have previously announced detentions of foreign humanitarian workers, accusing them of spying, and have been accused of diverting some of the badly needed aid sent into the country.
Stranded in Oman
The Houthis – who enjoy religious ties, political backing and at least some military support from US rival Iran – said they had been trying to bring home 240 of their supporters stranded in neighbouring Oman.
They had travelled to Oman – which frequently plays the role of broker in the turbulent region – two years ago for medical treatment, the rebels said.
“Thanks to God, about 240 fellow countrymen, who had been wounded and stranded, arrived in Sanaa on board two Omani planes,” said Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam.
“Among them were the wounded people who left for Muscat during the Sweden talks, and the United Nations did not return them according to the agreement,” he said, referring to the UN-sponsored peace process.
Senior Houthi political official Mohamed Ali al-Houthi accused the Saudi-led coalition that has led a bloody campaign against the rebels of previously refusing to let the group travel back.
“Today we were pleased to receive some wounded brothers who were stuck outside the country as a result of the brutal and continuous siege on our country. The coalition obstructed their exit and entry, one of its war crimes against Yemenis,” al-Houthi said in a tweet.
The Saudi-led coalition, which backs the fledgling internationally-recognised government in Yemen, did not immediately comment on the release or whether there was a swap.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was holding talks on Wednesday in Washington, where he criticised the Houthi rebels.
“The Iranian regime continues to provide financial and material support to terrorist groups, including in Yemen where the Houthis have launched more than 300 Iranian-made ballistic missiles and drones towards the kingdom,” he said, speaking next to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Saudi Arabia has faced widespread criticism over the deaths of civilians in its offensive in Yemen, which the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Some 3.3 million people have been displaced and 2,500 schools have been put out of commission, most of them due to attacks, according to UN figures.