US, Saudi Arabia rescue two women held captive by Iran-backed Houthis

Two Yemen-born American women, aged 19 and 20, were taken hostage and forced to marry "under duress."

Houthi troops ride on the back of a police patrol truck after participating in a Houthi gathering in Sanaa, Yemen February 19, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH)
Houthi troops ride on the back of a police patrol truck after participating in a Houthi gathering in Sanaa, Yemen February 19, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH)

Saudi Arabia and the United States mounted a joint operation in January to rescue two young American women who were held captive by the Iran-backed Houthi movement in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, a source with knowledge of the matter said on Thursday.

The Yemen-born women, aged 19 and 20, were flown from the Yemeni capital to the southern city of Aden and then to the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where they underwent health checks and other care, said the source, who requested anonymity.

The pair returned to the United States, said the source, who declined to reveal their identifies or other information about the women, citing privacy reasons.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed the rescue operation, saying in a statement: "We assisted with the safe return of two US citizens from an area of Yemen currently under Houthi control."

The spokesperson said the department was grateful for the assistance of "our Saudi and Yemeni partners ... in facilitating their safe departure. Due to privacy considerations, we have nothing further."

HOUTHI FOLLOWERS stand by piles of Yemeni currency during a campaign in September to collect supplies for fighters battling government forces. (credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)HOUTHI FOLLOWERS stand by piles of Yemeni currency during a campaign in September to collect supplies for fighters battling government forces. (credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)

The Saudi embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The women went to Sanaa in March 2021 to visit relatives and at some point had their freedom of movement restricted and their passports confiscated, the source said.

The Houthis also forced them to marry "under duress," the source said.

The joint rescue operation was mounted at the request of the United States, the source said.

The Houthi movement, claiming it was fighting a corrupt system, ousted Yemen's internationally recognized government in 2014 and seized Sanaa and now controls much of the deeply impoverished country.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened on the government's side in 2015. The conflict recently escalated with Houthi missile and drone attacks on the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition, prompting retaliatory strikes by the coalition.

The war has created what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with more than 20 million people in need of some form of assistance or protection.