Two American women rescued from Yemen's Houthis in U.S.-Saudi operation -source

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WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - 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 Sanaa 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.

Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Defence confirmed the operation in a statement on Friday, saying the Saudi Air Force had flown the women to Riyadh from Aden.

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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 U.S. 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."

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 Saudi defence ministry said the operation was a sign of the strength of bilateral relations between Riyadh and Washington.

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.

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Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Stephen Coates

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