October 27, 2020

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Two American hostages released by Yemeni rebels in swap for militants

By Ali al Mujahed and ,

SANAA, Yemen — Houthi rebels in Yemen freed two American hostages Wednesday in exchange for the release of nearly 300 of the group’s members, in a surprise U.S.-brokered deal, according to the Houthis and American officials.

The Americans — Sandra Loli, an aid worker held hostage for three years, and Mikael Gidada, a businessman held for nearly a year — were flown out on an Oman air force plane Wednesday from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Also on the flight were the remains of a third American, Bilal Fateen. It is not known how long he was held by the Houthis or the circumstances of his death.

 Hours earlier the plane, along with another jet, returned 283 Houthi militants who had been stranded in Oman for years after receiving medical care there, according to Houthi officials. The deal, which also called for the delivery of medical aid to northern Yemen, was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

 The release of the American hostages less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential elections offers a foreign policy boost for President Trump, even as it means that scores of Houthi militants could reenter the battlefield and prolong a conflict that has become increasingly unpopular in Washington.

[Why Iran is getting the blame for an attack on Saudi Arabia claimed by Yemen’s Houthis]

 In a statement Wednesday, U.S. national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien welcomed the release of the Americans and expressed condolences to Fateen’s family. O’Brien also thanked Oman’s leader, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia for their efforts to secure the release of the Americans.

 “President Trump continues to prioritize securing the release and repatriation of Americans held hostage abroad,” O’Brien said. “We will not rest until those held are home with their loved ones.”

 The Houthi leadership also viewed the deal as a victory. The returning militants were greeted by Muhammad Ali al-Houthi, one of the rebel group’s most senior political leaders, according to Al Masirah Net, the rebels’ official website.

“We congratulate the wounded on their return to the homeland after a long wait that was supposed to not happen because of the criminality of the Saudi American aggression,” said Houthi, referring to a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels.

[U.N., Arab powers fear wider war in Yemen after separatists declare self-rule in the south]

The Houthis have been trying for years to get their nearly 300 fighters back from Oman. Most of them had been flown there to seek medical treatment for injuries, a result of U.N.-brokered efforts to get the coalition and the rebels to engage in peace talks. But the coalition blocked the fighters from returning to Yemen.

It’s unclear why the three Americans were detained and kept captive. American officials have not, at least publicly, provided details. On Wednesday, in a statement to The Washington Post, Muhammad Ali al-Houthi suggested that the Americans were engaged in activity the rebels deemed suspicious.

“There are a lot of Americans who visit the Republic of Yemen and work in Yemen safely,” said Houthi. “If those [three] were only citizens without any suspicious roles or legal violations, they would not had faced anything.”

He also suggested that the Trump Administration had purposefully delayed the hostage-release date to time it with the upcoming elections. Negotiations, he said, have been ongoing for several months.

“The subject of the hostages exchange was discussed a few months ago by the Omanis and the agreement was timely approved,” said Houthi. “However, the American administration wants to benefit from the delay by, on one hand, demonizing the Yemeni people and, on the other hand, highlighting a success for it in its upcoming election campaign. And so it was delayed until today, it seems.”

 The deal offered a sliver of good news in an otherwise worsening situation in the Middle East’s poorest nation, which has been gripped by war for more than five years and what the United Nations has called the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis.

The fighting between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the regional coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia — which seeks to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government and thwart Iran’s growing influence — has intensified in recent days. The United States has backed the coalition with billions of dollars in weaponry, including fighter jets and bombs, as well as intelligence and logistical support.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis is deepening, fueled by significant cuts in funding by the United States and Western donors, as millions are on the edge of famine and suffering from disease and illness, including the novel coronavirus.

The conflict has divided Washington. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have publicly criticized the United States for backing Saudi Arabia and its allies. Coalition airstrikes, in particular, have targeted hospitals, clinics, schools, markers, killing thousands of civilians. Last year, a bipartisan resolution sought to end U.S. military involvement in the war, but President Trump vetoed the measure.

The Trump Administration has also intensified its pressure on the Houthis in recent months. It has reduced humanitarian funding in response to Houthi-imposed restrictions on the delivery of aid in the rebel-controlled areas of northern Yemen. The administration is also considering branding the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, a designation that could ban support for the rebels and freeze their financial assets.

Raghavan reported from Cairo.