US hostages released in Yemen prisoner swap

Two Americans held hostage by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen have been released as part of a large prisoner exchange.

A Royal Oman Air Force plane carrying the two Americans and the remains of a third flew out of Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital of Sana’a, hours after the jet and a companion flight brought the militants back to the country following years stuck in Oman.

It comes after the Houthis reported receiving more than 200 Yemenis from Oman, where many had been stranded after receiving medical treatment.

In a statement, the US state department welcomed the release of Ms Loli and Mr Gidada, and extended its condolences to the family of Mr Fateen.

Robert O’Brien, US national security adviser thanked Saudi Arabia and Oman for working with the US to secure the release of the Americans. Saudi officials said they agreed to help despite Houthi fighters have stifled United Nations efforts to end the war.

Mohammed Abdulsalam, earlier tweeted that the 240 or so Yemenis who returned to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, included either people who had been stranded or who were injured and had travelled to the Omani capital Muscat to receive medical treatment.

Mr Abdulsalam also thanked Oman for its "humanitarian efforts" but did not mention the release of US hostages.

The White House, FBI, CIA and State Department, led by Roger Carstens, the special envoy for hostage affairs, all worked on the agreement.

The deal comes amid a renewed debate in the Trump administration over whether to officially list Houthi fighters as a terrorist organisation. Some Trump officials have repeatedly sought to put the Houthis on the list alongside al Qaeda, Islamic State and Hezbollah.

Officials in the US have accused Iran of providing Houthi fighters with training, advanced drones and ballistic missiles they have used to attack Saudi Arabia. Iran, which allowed the Houthis last year to officially take control of the Yemen Embassy in Tehran, has denied that it provides the Houthis with weapons or military training.

Yemen has been devastated by a conflict that escalated in March 2015, when the rebels seized control of much of the west of the country and forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee abroad.

The civil war has also triggered the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with thousands of civilians dying from preventable causes, including malnutrition, disease and poor health.

The Obama administration worked with Oman and Saudi Arabia to secure release of several Americans held by the Houthis. In 2015, a top State Department official secretly met with Houthi leaders and asked them to free Americans held by the group. Houthi fighters released two Americans in 2016, in a deal that allowed Yemenis injured in a Saudi airstrike to fly from Yemen to Oman for medical treatment.

The Trump administration has also used various deals to secure freedom for Americans. Last year, they released an Iranian scientist imprisoned in the country on sanctions violations in exchange for Tehran releasing a Princeton graduate student convicted of spying for Washington.