A French-Tunisian woman working for the Red Cross has been released after nearly a year in captivity in Yemen, the International Committee of the Red Cross said late Monday. An ICRC statement said that Nourane Houas had arrived in Oman’s capital, Muscat, after being freed by her Yemeni captors. Houas was kidnapped by a group of armed men on her way to work in Yemen’s capital Sanaa on Dec. 1, 2015. A colleague with her was released unharmed a few hours later but she was held.
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She appeared in a video in May asking French President Francois Hollande to save her life.
Hollande “expressed his gratitude to all those who allowed for a happy ending to this ordeal,” notably the Sultan of Oman, according to a statement from Hollande’s office. He also cited the efforts of ICRC President Peter Maurer and members of his organization. In a tweet, Maurer thanked everyone who worked to secure her release, saying: “Respect for humanitarian workers and their neutrality is vital.”
Houas landed in Muscat on an Omani air force flight, stepping off the jet in a simple black robe, according to images released by state media.
Hollande praised “Nourane Houas’ courage during her long detention,” adding that he “shares in her family’s joy” over her release.
“We are relieved and thankful that Nourane is now back with us, safe and sound,” said Alexandre Faite, head of the ICRC delegation in Yemen. “Her abduction was a terrible ordeal for her, as well as for her family, friends and colleagues. And it has obviously dealt a real blow to our humanitarian work in Yemen.”
Faite said her release “has taken a lot of effort, inside and outside Yemen and over many months, but finally we have a positive result.”
“Our priority now is Nourane’s well-being and getting her home to her family,” Faite said. “We would ask everyone to respect her and her family’s privacy at this time.”
No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction and the ICRC said it will not comment on the identity of the abductors, their motives or the details of her release. Hollande also gave no details about the circumstances of Houas’ release.
Oman’s Foreign Ministry said it used “Yemeni contacts” to free Houas on the orders of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, without elaborating. While ongoing peace talks to end Yemen’s civil war have been held in Kuwait, Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis repeatedly have traveled to Muscat to engage in talks.
Oman, a country on the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has proven itself as a valuable Western ally to negotiate the release of captives in the region.
The quiet sultanate, long a go-to negotiator in the Mideast, stands apart from its Gulf Arab neighbors in not joining the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis. It instead has positioned itself as a quiet mediator by hosting talks involving the rebels and other parties. It also was crucial in facilitating negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s contested nuclear program.
Previously, Yemen negotiated the releases of several groups of foreign captives held amid Yemen’s war.
The abduction of foreigners is common in Yemen, where militant groups such as al-Qaida and tribesmen use hostages to raise funds through ransom payments or bargain for the release of prisoners. The Houthis also have held Westerners captives during the war.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, has been embroiled in fighting that pits the Iran-backed Houthis and forces loyal to a former president against the Saudi-backed and internationally recognized government. The Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against the rebels and their allies since March 2015, fearful of Iranian influence spreading across the Arabian Peninsula.
The United Nations and rights groups estimated at least 9,000 people overall have died in the war, with the U.N. estimating 3,800 civilians have been killed since the airstrike campaign began. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes were responsible for 60 percent of the civilian deaths over a yearlong span starting in July last year, according to a U.N. report.