Two Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed forces in Yemen freed in commerce

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Two Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen were freed on Wednesday as part of a US-backed trade that returned more than 200 of the group’s worshipers to the fractured Middle East country , according to US and Saudi officials.

A Royal Oman Air Force plane carrying the two Americans and the remains of a third took off from the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sana’a hours after the jet and an accompanying flight brought militants back to the country after years stranded in Oman.

The agreement guaranteed the freedom of Sandra Loli, an American aid worker held hostage by the Houthis for 16 months, and Mikael Gidada, an American businessman detained for more than a year, said Kash Patel, assistant Assistant to President Trump who worked on the deal. . The pact also provided for the return of the remains of Bilal Fateen, a third American detained by the Houthis. US officials provided only limited information on the three Americans, but said they were urgently working to secure the deal as Ms Loli’s health was declining. The agreement also included the delivery of medical aid to Yemen.

Saudi officials have said they reluctantly back the deal, which they say would allow dozens of Houthi militants trained on drones and advanced missiles to return to the combat zone. Mr Patel said the United States is working to ensure that the Houthis returning to Yemen do not pose a major risk.

Houthi officials described the exchange as “a favor for a favor” and said those allowed to return from Oman included Yemeni students and civilians injured during the war. In total, Houthi officials said 240 people returned to Oman flights on Wednesday.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi political council, said Wednesday that the Americans had been detained for participating in suspicious activity in Yemen.

“There are a lot of Americans who visit the Republic of Yemen, and they work safely in Yemen, but if they were just citizens who were not involved in suspicious acts or violations of the law, they will not be subject to anything, ”Mr. al-Houthi told me.

US officials have dismissed the suspicious activity allegation as unfounded.

With the support of the United States, Saudi Arabia and its Middle Eastern allies fought a five-year-old battle against Iranian-backed fighters in Yemen, who toppled the government and seized the country’s capital from Gulf in 2014. The United Nations tried on several occasions to negotiate. the end of the war in Yemen, which, according to the international body, is the country of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

US support for the war in Yemen has become a polarizing issue in Washington, where Mr Trump vetoed a bipartisan resolution last year aimed at ending US support for the fighting Saudi-led military coalition. the Houthi fighters.

Lawmakers on both sides have criticized the United States for providing Saudi Arabia and its allies with weapons, intelligence and other military support for the fight in Yemen, where coalition airstrikes have killed people. thousands of civilians. Under pressure, the Pentagon reduced its support for Saudi Arabia’s combat in Yemen.

As part of the deal, Saudi and US officials said, the Houthi leaders agreed to release the two Americans if Saudi Arabia and its allies allowed more than 200 Houthi loyalists to leave Oman and return to Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition controls flights to and from. the capital. At one point earlier this fall, the deal called for the release of around 100 Houthi loyalists, but Saudi officials said the Houthis had increased their demands in recent weeks.

Most of the Houthi fighters were flown to Oman several years ago for medical treatment as part of a UN-negotiated goodwill gesture by the Saudi-led coalition aimed at reviving the peace talks. Once in Oman, they were barred by Saudi Arabia from returning.

Martin Griffiths, the UN presidential special envoy, has been trying for two years to find a way to end the war. His efforts helped contain the fighting, but the talks suffered repeated setbacks.

The deal to free the Americans was negotiated in parallel with a previously announced broader prisoner swap, organized by the UN, with the Saudi-led coalition agreed last month to release 681 Houthi fighters in exchange for 400 people held by the Houthis, including four Saudi soldiers. The latest deal – kept out of the public eye by American families and the US government as officials tried to secure their freedom – is outside of that.

UN and Gulf officials hoped the staggered prisoner exchange would help revive peace talks, but a new wave of fighting has once again cast a veil on those prospects.

Robert O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, thanked Saudi Arabia and Oman for working with the United States to secure the release of the Americans. Saudi officials have said they have agreed to help the United States, even though Houthi fighters have stifled UN efforts to end the war.

Wounded Houthi fighters were waiting to be evacuated from Sanaa International Airport in December 2018.

Photo:
yahya arhab / epa / Shutterstock

“It was very difficult for Saudi Arabia because the Houthis continue to target the kingdom’s lands with Iranian-made missiles and drones, and they reject the proposals of the UN envoy,” said one Saudi official. “We need to strike a balance between Saudi efforts in Yemen to achieve peace and to help our American allies liberate the Americans. We have to support peace from different angles. ”

Saudi officials said they were particularly concerned about the return of three dozen Houthi fighters to Yemen who they said had received specialized training in Iran on drones and missiles.

“It is a difficult decision to make because of the training the Houthis have received,” said a second Saudi official. “They will come back and familiarize themselves with the current war efforts.”

Mr Patel said the United States was ensuring that the Houthis who returned to Yemen were not on any US terrorist lists. The United States has blocked the return of some Houthis the group wanted to return because they were considered at high risk, he said.

“We had teams on the ground at both locations [Yemen and Oman] to ensure that those returning and that the cargo manifest has been inspected have been properly vetted to assure the Saudis that no lethal aid has been provided and that no known terrorists have been returned ”, said Patel, who is also senior counterterrorism director at the White House National Security Council.

The White House, the FBI, the CIA and the State Department, led by Roger Carstens, the special envoy for the hostages, all worked on the deal.

The deal comes amid renewed debate within the Trump administration over whether to officially list Houthi fighters as a terrorist organization. Some Trump officials have repeatedly sought to put the Houthis on the list alongside Al Qaeda, Islamic State and Hezbollah.

The administration has delayed this move, fearing it will jeopardize aid to vulnerable Yemenis living in Houthi-controlled areas.

U.S. officials accused Iran of providing Houthi fighters with training, advanced drones and ballistic missiles that they used to attack Saudi Arabia. Iran, which allowed the Houthis last year to formally take control of the Yemeni embassy in Tehran, has denied providing the Houthis with weapons or military training.

Mr. Trump has made securing the freedom of Americans held by foreign adversaries a priority. In a campaign video released during the recent Republican National Convention, Mr. Trump said he released more than 50 Americans detained in 22 countries.

Yemen has proven to be a particularly difficult location for US military operations in recent years. In 2014, American commandos attempted and failed to release a detained American freelance journalist, who was killed along with a South African teacher during the operation.

Days after becoming president, Mr. Trump authorized a raid targeting al-Qaeda militants in Yemen that killed 14 fighters but also led to the death of a Navy SEAL.

This building was reportedly destroyed by an airstrike led by Saudi Arabia in Sana’a in July 2019.

Photo:
yahya arhab / EPA / Shutterstock

Trump administration officials have said the United States will make no concessions to groups that hold Americans hostage for fear of encouraging others to adopt the tactic to try to extort the United States.

“The president has had unprecedented success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges, but thanks to the strength of will and goodwill he has generated around the world,” he said. Mr. O’Brien said last year.

But the U.S. government has worked with allies in the past to strike similar deals, as the Trump administration did in Afghanistan last year when the government in Kabul released three major militant leaders in exchange for the release of two Western professors held by the Taliban for three years. .

The US-backed agreement between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia includes the largest agreement known to allow armed adversaries of the United States and its allies to return to an active conflict zone.

Before becoming president, Mr Trump criticized his predecessor, President Obama, for agreeing to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the return of Bowe Bergdahl, an army soldier held by the Taliban for five years afterwards to have moved away. from his post in Afghanistan.

Since entering the White House, Mr. Trump has used various agreements to secure Americans’ freedom. Last year, his administration freed an Iranian scientist jailed in the United States for violating sanctions in exchange for Tehran releasing a Princeton graduate student convicted of spying for Washington.

The Obama administration has also worked with Oman and Saudi Arabia to secure the release of several Americans held by the Houthis. In 2015, a senior State Department official secretly met with Houthi leaders and asked them to release Americans held by the group. In 2016, Houthi fighters freed two Americans under a deal that allowed Yemenis injured in a Saudi airstrike to fly from Yemen to Oman for medical treatment.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]

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