WASHINGTON (AP) – Two Americans and the remains of a third being held captive by Iranian-backed militants in Yemen were freed on Wednesday in exchange for the return of around 250 Houthi rebels from Oman, according to the White House and sources in the Region.
According to information from the State of Oman, the American captives were expelled from Yemen by Omani plane. He said 250 “Yemeni brothers” who received treatment in Oman were returned to Yemen’s capital Sana’a on two flights as part of the exchange.
“The United States welcomes the release today of US citizens Sandra Loli and Mikael Gidada from Houthi custody in Yemen,” National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement. “We send our condolences to the family of Bilal Fateen, whose remains will also be repatriated.”
O’Brien did not mention the exchange, but thanked the leaders of Oman and Saudi Arabia for their help in securing the release of the Americans.
Kieran Ramsey, director of the administration’s hostage recovery cell, said Loli and Gidada will be back in the United States soon.
“Tragically, one of these Americans died during his illegal captivity,” Ramsey said.
Kash Patel, a deputy Trump aide who worked on the deal, told the Wall Street Journal that Loli had been held by the Houthis for about three years and Gidada was held captive for about a year.
Yemen plunged into chaos and civil war when Houthi rebels recaptured Sana’a in 2014 from the internationally recognized government. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the government has been fighting the Houthis since March 2015.
The war in Yemen has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions of people with food and medical shortages. It has killed more than 112,000 people, including combatants and civilians, according to a database project that tracks the violence.
According to the newspaper, Saudi officials said they were reluctant to back the deal because it would allow dozens of Houthi militants trained on drones and advanced missiles to return to the combat zone.
Mohamed Abdel-Salam, a spokesperson for Iranian-backed activists, also confirmed that around 240 rebels returned to Sana’a on two Omani flights. Among the returnees were wounded rebels who traveled to Muscat during the Swedish peace talks two years ago.
Contacted by the Associated Press, Abdel-Salam declined to comment on the release of the two Americans.
The release of the Americans came a day before a planned UN-organized exchange of more than 1,000 prisoners between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government. The UN said in September that the two warring parties had agreed to exchange 1,081 conflict-related prisoners, including Saudi and Sudanese soldiers fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition.
Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.
Correct that the release of the Americans took place a day before, not after, a UN-organized prisoner exchange.