U.S. secures the release of 2 Americans from Yemen in exchange for 250 Iran-backed Yemeni militants

Houthi rebels in Sanaa in 2015
(Image credit: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Two U.S. citizens and the remains of a third American were released by Houthi rebels in Yemen on Wednesday in a surprise exchange that sent about 250 Yemeni militants back to the country. Sandra Loli, a U.S. aid worker held hostage for three years, and businessman Mikael Gidada, detained for a year, were flown to Oman, along with the remains of Bilal Fateen. Between 240 and 283 Yemeni rebels stuck in Oman for several years were flown to Sanaa, Yemen's capital, with reluctant agreement from Saudi Arabia. The deal also included medical aid for Yemen, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Saudi Arabia, which has been battling the Iranian-backed Houthis in a bloody civil war since 2014, was "especially concerned about three dozen Houthi fighters being sent back to Yemen who they said had received specialized training in Iran on drones and missiles," the Journal reports. "The U.S.-backed deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia includes the largest known agreement to allow armed adversaries of the U.S. and its allies to return to an active conflict zone."

President Trump has emphasized the return of U.S. hostages held abroad. "We will not rest until those held are home with their loved ones," said national security adviser Robert O'Brien, Trump's former lead hostage negotiator. Senior Houthi political leader Muhammad Ali al-Houthi was also pleased with the exchange. "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," he said.

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Houthi told The Washington Post that negotiations had been underway for months and speculated that "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." The White House called that claim "patently and categorically false" and also denied Houthi's suggestion that the American hostages had been detained for suspicious or unlawful activity.

The proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran has killed more than 112,000 people and spawned one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. There is bipartisan opposition in Congress to U.S. military support for the Saudi offensive, and Trump vetoed a bill that would have ended that support.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.