Yemen's Houthi rebels release two US citizens in prisoner swap

Officials from Saudi Arabia and Oman helped negotiate the release

al-monitor Head of the Houthi prisoner exchange committee Abdulkader al-Murtada (C - L) shakes hands with Head of the Yemeni government delegation Hadi Haig (C - L) between ICRC Director for the Near and Middle East Fabrizio Carboni (L) and UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths at the end of a week-long meeting on a Yemen prisoner exchange agreement on Sept. 27, 2020 in Glion, western Switzerland.  Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 14, 2020

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition released more than 240 Houthi prisoners in exchange for the release of two US citizens and the return of the bodily remains of a third American held by the Yemeni rebels.

Humanitarian worker Sandra Loli and businessman Mikael Gidada were released to the United States following negotiations involving Saudi officials. The remains of Bilal Fateen, a dual US-Yemeni citizen who died in Houthi captivity, were also returned.

In a statement today, US national security adviser Robert O’Brien thanked Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud for their assistance in achieving the Americans’ release. O’Brien did not mention the exchange, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal today.

Assurances from the Trump administration led Saudi officials to release the Houthi prisoners, some of whom were stuck in Oman for more than a year after receiving medical treatment under a United Nations peace initiative.

Other Yemenis allowed to return to their country had been Houthi fighters captured by the Saudi-led coalition, according to The New York Times.

Saudi officials told The Wall Street Journal their side was reluctant to go through with the deal, in part because some three dozen of the Houthi prisoners were believed to have received training involving drones and missiles in Iran. Houthi officials also doubled the number of requested prisoners in recent weeks, the Journal’s sources said.

Saudi Arabia led a coalition of countries to intervene in Yemen's civil war with US support against the Zaydi Shiite rebels 2015. Ties between the Houthis and Iran have continued, with the United States pointing to alleged weapons transfers from Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Riyadh has shown signs of interest in extracting itself from the war, but its Yemeni partners have yet to resolve a major rift that continues to undermine attempts to unify Yemen’s south.

Meanwhile, fighting with the Houthis renewed over the port city of Hodeida earlier this month despite a UN-brokered cease-fire.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today hosted his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, in Washington.