Two Americans, Sandra Loli and Mikael Gidada, who had been held in Yemen by Iranian-backed rebels, are being released, Kash Patel, the White House’s National Security Council’s senior counterterrorism director, announced. In return, Washington facilitated the release of 240 Houthi rebels who had been stranded and held in Oman.
Loli, a humanitarian worker, had been held captive by the Houthis for about three years; Gidada, a businessman, had been a hostage for about one year. Their release barely registered in the U.S. media.
The two were flown out of Sanaa, Yemen on a Royal Oman Air Force aircraft that had returned the 240 Houthis to Yemen. The body of Bilal Fateen, another U.S. hostage that had been held by the Houthis was also returned. Fateen had died in captivity but the circumstances surrounding his death are unknown.
The Saudi government, the Omanis, and the Houthis worked together to achieve the swap. The Iranians had also been working behind the scenes to organize the release of the Houthi rebels.
The rebels had been wounded in the fighting in Yemen and had traveled to Oman for medical treatment where they became stranded. The Houthis claim that the Saudi coalition was behind their fighters’ detention.
Patel said that while some high-risk militants that the Houthis wanted back were excluded from the swap, none of the Houthi fighters who were returned to Yemen were on U.S. terrorism watchlists.
“We had teams on the ground in both [Yemen and Oman] to ensure that there was a proper screening conducted of the people going back and that the cargo manifest was inspected so we could ensure the Saudis that no lethal aid was being provided and no known terrorist was being sent back,” Patel said.
Robert O’Brien, the U.S. national security adviser, thanked Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said “for their efforts to secure the release of our citizens.”
U.S. President Donald Trump “continues to prioritize securing the release and repatriation of Americans held hostage abroad,” O’Brien said in a released statement. “We will not rest until those held are home with their loved ones,” he added.
The Houthi rebels have routinely announced detentions of foreign humanitarian workers, accusing them of spying for the CIA or Israel.
Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, a senior Houthi political officer, took to Twitter to accuse the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes: “Today we were pleased to receive some wounded brothers who were stuck outside the country as a result of the brutal and continuous siege on our country. The coalition [sic] obstructed their exit and entry, one of its war crimes against Yemenis.”
On Wednesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was in Washington. Standing next to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo he called out Iran and the Houthi leadership: “The Iranian regime continues to provide financial and material support to terrorist groups, including in Yemen where the Houthis have launched more than 300 Iranian-made ballistic missiles and drones towards the kingdom.”
The release of the two Americans was part of an overall deal involving the swap of 1081 prisoners from both sides.
According to the overall deal, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels released around 400 people while the coalition freed 681 Houthi fighters. Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said the swap “brings hope for peace-building,”
Nevertheless, the returning fighters, who were treated to a red-carpet welcome, sounded nothing like they were ready for peace.
“Death to America!, Death to Israel!” they shouted as they arrived.