Two American captives and the remains of a deceased third American who have been held by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen were freed on Wednesday as part of a U.S.-backed prisoner exchange, in which more than 200 captured Houthi militants were also released, according to U.S. and Saudi Arabian officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal.
Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to President Trump who worked on the prisoner exchange, identified the two living Americans released as Sandra Loli and Mikael Gidada. Loli is an American humanitarian worker who was held hostage by the Houthis for about three years and Gidada is a U.S. businessman who was held for about a year. The remains of a third American, Bilal Fateen, were also turned over by the Houthi militants.
Loli, Gidada and the remains of Fateen departed from Houthi capital of Sana’a aboard one of the same Royal Oman Air Force planes that delivered some of the freed Houthi captives hours earlier.
U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that they worked urgently on the deal to secure the two captive Americans as Loli’s health was in decline.
Saudi officials told the Wall Street Journal they reluctantly backed the deal, which they said included the release of dozens of Houthi militants trained to operate advanced drones and missiles. Their release would potentially allow them to return to the battlefield in the ongoing conflict between the Houthis and a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. Patel said the U.S. worked to ensure that Houthis returning to Yemen didn’t pose a major risk.
Most of the Houthi militants freed in Wednesday’s exchange were flown to Oman several years ago for medical care as part of a U.N.-brokered goodwill gesture from the Saudi-led coalition to the Houthis. The gesture was reportedly meant to help initiate peace talks, but once the Houthi rebels arrived in Oman, the Saudi government blocked their return to neighboring Yemen.
The initial negotiations, earlier this fall, called for the release of about 100 Houthi loyalists, but Saudi officials told the WSJ that the Houthis increased their demands in recent weeks.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien thanked Saudi Arabia and Oman for backing the negotiations that allowed for the release of the American hostages.
One Saudi official told the WSJ that the prisoner exchange was “very difficult for Saudi Arabia because the Houthis are continuing to target the kingdom’s lands with Iranian-made missiles and drones, and they reject the U.N. envoy’s proposals. We need to find a balance between Saudi efforts in Yemen to achieve peace and to support our allies in America in releasing the Americans. We need to support peace from different angles.”
The U.S. has previously linked Iran to efforts to aid the Houthis in their fight against the Saudi-led coalition. In February, the U.S. Navy seized a shipment of 150 Iranian anti-tank missiles which they assessed were bound for Houthi forces in Yemen.
Patel said the U.S. vetted the Houthi militants being released in the exchange to make certain none were on any American terrorism lists. The U.S. reportedly blocked the return of some militants who they did deem to be too high-risk for release.
“We had teams on the ground in both locations [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 told the WSJ.
The Trump administration has reportedly considered listing Houthi fighters as a terrorist organization but has held off on making the designation, which could undermine the U.S. ability to send aid to Yemenis living in Houthi-controlled areas.