The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Americans released by Yemeni rebels in swap for militants as Trump hails record on hostages

Yemeni forces loyal to the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government engage in fighting with Houthi militiamen in the port city of Hodeidah on Oct. 8. (Najeeb Almahboobi/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Two Americans held hostage by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen were freed Wednesday in a surprise deal brokered by the United States, as President Trump emphasizes his record in securing the return of scores of Americans held abroad as a selling point less than three weeks before the election.

The agreement freeing Sandra Loli, an aid worker held hostage for three years, and Mikael Gidada, a businessman held for nearly a year, was only grudgingly accepted by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which has waged a years-long war against the Houthi rebel group in neighboring Yemen.

In exchange for the Americans, nearly 300 of the rebel group's members were returned to Yemen, where some may reenter the battlefield and prolong a conflict that has become increasingly unpopular in Washington.

The fact that the deal went forward even as the Trump administration supports a Saudi-led coalition in the war suggests the importance the president has placed on the release of American hostages. Trump claims to have helped free more than 50 Americans abroad, though the exact number may be fewer.

The negotiation with the Houthis also took place despite a debate within the Trump administration over whether to label the rebels as terrorists, alongside al-Qaeda and other groups.

The Americans 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. The United States has released no information on how long he was held by the Houthis or the circumstances of his death.

Hours earlier, the same 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 so close to the Nov. 3 presidential election offers a foreign policy boost for Trump, who has said he is able to negotiate deals that past presidents and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, were too timid to attempt.

Trump invited freed hostages to the White House for an event broadcast as part of the Republican National Convention in August, saying then that the effort has been a priority for his administration. Trump had hired lawyer Robert C. O’Brien as an in-house hostage negotiator and last year promoted him to national security adviser.

“I’m very pleased to let everybody know that we brought back over 50 hostages from 22 different countries. We work very hard on it, Ambassador O’Brien and others. I will tell you, we’re very proud of the job we did,” Trump said during the convention event.

Vice President Pence invited the parents of Kayla Mueller, an American human rights activist who was killed while in Islamic State captivity, to his debate last week with the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Pence said that Biden, as vice president under President Barack Obama, didn’t do enough to rescue Mueller before her death in Syria in 2015.

Obama authorized a rescue mission, but Mueller and other hostages had been moved.

Trump has cast his emphasis on hostages and prisoners as part of an unconventional approach to foreign policy that includes outreach to enemies and a willingness to skirt the long-standing U.S. policy of refusing to barter with hostage-takers or offer concessions.

In the cases of Iran and North Korea, Trump has also suggested that the return of Americans can be a starting point for larger negotiations and agreements.

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

 In a statement Wednesday, 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 help.

“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,” Houthi said, referring to a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels.

The Houthis have been trying for years to get the fighters back from Oman. Most of them had been flown there to seek medical treatment for injuries, a result of United Nations-brokered efforts toward 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, 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,” he said. “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 release date to time it with next month’s election. 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,” Houthi said. “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 Trump administration denied a political motive in the timing of the release.

“These discussions have been deliberate, careful, and ongoing between Oman and the Houthis,” National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement to The Post. “Suggestions that the end result was orchestrated to benefit a particular timeline [are] patently and categorically false.”

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 by what the United Nations has called the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis. Thousands of civilians have died in the fighting.

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, as well as intelligence and logistical support.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with his Saudi counterpart Wednesday in Washington, blamed the Houthis and Iran for prolonging a war that he said threatens Saudi interests.

“And so we are doing everything we can to make sure that the Islamic Republic of Iran has fewer resources with which to underwrite the Houthis,” Pompeo said, referring to U.S. financial sanctions.

“And then we’re doing everything we can to provide our diplomatic support as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia works to try and come to a better solution inside of Yemen,” he said.

Pompeo did not initially mention the hostage release. It was not clear whether Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud had aired the kingdom’s concerns about the deal, which appears to represent a rare instance of the White House setting aside Saudi priorities in the Yemen conflict.

But in a statement later Wednesday, Pompeo thanked the leaders of Oman and Saudi Arabia for their assistance.

“Today’s news is the latest affirmation that President Trump remains committed to bringing every American held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad back home. This Administration will not rest until they are all reunited with their families,” he said.

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 northern Yemen. The administration is also considering branding the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which could ban support for the rebels and freeze their financial assets.

Al Mujahed reported from Sanaa, Yemen, and Raghavan reported from Cairo.