Houthi rebels in Yemen have taken at least four US citizens prisoner, according to US officials who have been trying to secure their release.
The Americans are thought to be held in a prison in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, a city occupied by the Houthis and bombed repeatedly by Saudi Arabia with intelligence support from the United States.
US officials said three of the prisoners were employed in the private sector while a fourth, whose occupation is unknown, is a citizen of both the United States and Yemen. One of them was taken into custody two weeks ago.
None of the prisoners worked for the US government, and there is no indication that they have been physically harmed or are being treated as hostages.
The Houthis and the US have not been in direct contact after the United States’s formal departure from Yemen. The US embassy has been closed since February, after which embassy employees and US military personnel were pulled back.
The Houthis are allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and are fighting against the Western and Saudi Arabia backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi who fled Yemen in March.
US efforts to get the prisoners released have gone through humanitarian aid organisations that still have a presence in Sanaa. There have been no contacts with Iran over the Americans being held in Yemen, the Washington Post reported on Friday.
Iran is known to back the Houthis and is currently negotiating with six world powers including the US over its nuclear programme and the impending removal of sanctions.
The Houthis had agreed to release one of the prisoners only to reverse their decision at the last minute, to the mental detriment of the man in custody.
The prisoner was initially detained “because he overstayed his visa,” a senior US official told the Washington Post. Houthi leaders early last week approved his release and the International Organization for Migration arranged his flights.
However on May 27, his travel authorisation was revoked by the Houthis who accused him of having traveled without permission to sensitive regions in Yemen.
The US official told the Washington Post that there have been reports of the American acting “as if he were mentally unstable” upon his return to a Yemeni prison.
A fifth American, Sharif Mobley, is also being held in Yemen, having been jailed by the previous government due to terrorism-related charges. His capture has previously been reported by the news media.
The Washington Post and the New York Times have refrained from reporting any names or details that could help identify the prisoners and compromise their safety at the request of US officials and relatives.