Iran-backed Houthis offer to free Saudis in exchange for Hamas members
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Iran-backed Houthis offer to free Saudis in exchange for Hamas members

Prisoner swap request by Yemen Shiite group on behalf of Palestinian terror organization appears to show Iran’s regional reach

Houthi rebel fighters display their weapons during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.  (AP/Hani Mohammed)
Houthi rebel fighters display their weapons during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (AP/Hani Mohammed)

CAIRO, Egypt — The leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Thursday declared his willingness to free several Saudi captives in exchange for the release of Hamas members recently detained in the kingdom, an unprecedented statement that signaled Iran’s regional reach.

In a lengthy televised speech to mark the five-year anniversary of Yemen’s devastating war, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi announced the rebels’ “complete readiness” to release a pilot abducted in the downing of a Saudi warplane last month, along with four other soldiers and officers.

“Unfortunately, the regimes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have generally presented as worse than Israel,” he said, demanding the release of dozens of Palestinian Hamas members and supporters on trial in Saudi Arabia. They had been arrested on charges of fundraising for Hamas, according to an official in the militant group.

The regional proxy war in impoverished Yemen pits the Iran-backed Houthis against a US-supported coalition led by Saudi Arabia. After the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north in 2014, the coalition intervened to restore the internationally recognized government and remove what Saudi Arabia considers to be an Iranian threat on its southern border.

Iranians burn and stomp on Israeli and American flags during a demonstration against the Saudi-led coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, April 13, 2015. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

Iran’s patronage of local Shiite militias as a way of expanding its regional influence and undermining its Sunni foe is not limited to the Houthis. The Islamic Republic also supports the Palestinian terror group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, among others.

The Houthis’ unprecedented intervention in the cases of Hamas members appears to come straight out of the Iranian playbook.

In a statement, Hamas said it “followed with interest” the Houthis’ call for the release of detainees, thanking the faction for its “spirit of brotherhood and solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

Palestinians attend a Hamas rally marking the 32nd anniversary of the terror group’s founding in the southern Gaza Strip, December 16, 2019. (Fadi Fahd/Flash90 )

Last month, the Houthis shot down a two-pilot coalition Tornado warplane, drawing fierce retaliatory strikes that killed over 30 civilians in the northern province of Jawf. Al-Houthi did not comment on the second abducted pilot in Thursday’s speech.

The wave of indiscriminate Saudi-led coalition attacks brought international condemnation, the latest measure of civilian suffering in a war that has killed over 100,000 people and brought millions to the brink of famine.

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