Two Americans held hostage by Houthi rebels in Yemen have been released as part of a U.S.-backed deal that includes more than 200 of the group’s loyalists returning to the war-torn country, the Trump administration confirmed Wednesday.
In addition to the two freed Americans, the remains of a third are also being sent back to the United States under the agreement, which was negotiated between Oman and the Houthis.
“The United States welcomes the release today of U.S. citizens Sandra Loli and Mikael Gidada from Houthi custody in Yemen,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement. “We send our condolences to the family of Bilal Fateen, whose remains will be repatriated as well. We extend our sincerest thanks to Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman and King Salman of Saudi Arabia for their efforts to secure the release of our citizens.”
The freeing of the Americans gives President Trump another event to point to among his efforts on foreign policy and protecting U.S. citizens abroad as the election approaches.
During this summer’s Republican National Convention, Trump appeared in a video with six American hostages freed during his tenure, claiming they were among 50 released from 22 countries during his administration. The video mostly garnered attention for Trump’s praise of Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a conversation with Andrew Brunson, who had been held by Erdogan’s government for two years.
“President Trump continues to prioritize securing the release and repatriation of Americans held hostage abroad,” O’Brien said in Wednesday’s statement, repeating Trump’s claim about the 50 U.S. citizens. “We will not rest until those held are home with their loved ones.”
Wednesday’s exchange was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, which cited unnamed Saudi Arabian officials as saying they reluctantly backed a deal that could see Houthis return to the battlefield in hopes of reinvigorating peace efforts.
Most of the Houthis allowed to return to Yemen were sent to Oman a couple years ago for medical care as part of a United Nations-brokered goodwill effort, but once there, the Saudis did not let them leave, according to the Journal.
The United States has supported a Saudi-led coalition’s war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015.
U.S. support, which includes weapons sales, intelligence and other military aid, has been increasingly opposed by lawmakers in both parties as coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians.
But the Trump administration has seen support for the Saudis as a key part of its so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
U.N.-led peace talks have made some halting progress, including a prisoner exchange last month, but fighting has flared anew.
Also Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Washington with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
Asked in a news conference after the meeting about efforts to end the war, Pompeo placed blame for humanitarian catastrophes on Iran.
“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,” Pompeo said. “And of course we support the U.N.’s efforts on the humanitarian side, as well. The United States has been a significant donor to providing humanitarian resources for the region. It has just proven difficult when the Iranians direct the Houthis not to allow that food, those medicines, the much needed goods to get inside and be distributed inside of Yemen.”