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Arab Raid Led to Freedom for American Hostage in Yemen

An American hostage who was freed in Yemen in February after nearly 18 months in captivity was rescued in an armed raid led by the United Arab Emirates with help from the United States, according to American and Yemeni officials.

The hostage, Danny Lavone Burch, had been held by a criminal Yemeni gang with a record of kidnapping Westerners for ransom. The gang was known to sell hostages to a powerful local affiliate of Al Qaeda, the officials said.

President Trump hosted Mr. Burch at the White House on Wednesday, crediting his release as a result of “great help from U.A.E. and all of our friends.” The president did not provide details, but also said Mr. Burch’s rescue was one of “a few negotiations” worldwide to free Americans held captive.

“Gosh, it’s great to be an American,” Mr. Burch told a small group of American officials and journalists in the Oval Office.

“This is the end result: a happy man with a happy family,” Mr. Trump said.

More than a half-dozen American and Yemeni officials described parts of the rescue operation on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Burch was retrieved from a cellar where he was being held in a lawless part of Yemen. One senior Yemeni official said seven people were arrested in the raid.

There were conflicting accounts of which military force led the raid. Some officials said it was Emirati special forces. A senior Yemeni official said the raid was coordinated by the emirates but executed by the Hadrami Elite Forces, a Yemeni special forces group that operates under Emirati command.

Mr. Burch was born in Texas and worked for a Yemeni state oil company. He had been living in Yemen since the 1990s, converted to Islam and married a Yemeni woman. He was snatched outside a restaurant in Sana, the Yemeni capital, in September 2017 as he drove his children to a swimming pool.

A week later, a security agency controlled by the Houthi rebels who control Sana blamed the abduction on a gang led by Ali Nasser Huraiqidan, a tribal criminal notorious for kidnapping foreigners for ransom.

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An internal Yemeni report on the kidnapping, which was obtained by The New York Times, was based on the interrogation of two gang members who were said to have returned to Sana after driving Mr. Burch to Marib, an oil-rich province east of the capital.

The report said the kidnappers “represent a dangerous criminal gang involved in kidnapping, road blocking and armed robbery.”

Former American officials said the gang had signaled it wanted millions of dollars for Mr. Burch’s safe release. It was feared, the former officials said, that the gang was going sell Mr. Burch to Al Qaeda in Yemen.

In recent years, Mr. Huraiqidan has been accused of holding a Norwegian aid worker, an Italian diplomat and a German official. Mr. Huraiqidan usually held his victims in Marib, where he lives in a fortified compound. During his captivity, the German official was interviewed by a reporter with a local television channel.

An elderly man in Yemeni clothes, the German appealed to the reporter for his release in broken Arabic, saying he was suffering from cancer. Also in the interview, a masked Mr. Huraiqidan demanded a ransom and threatened to hand the German to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which American intelligence agencies view as one of the group’s most lethal affiliates.

For much of last year, American officials hoped to negotiate for Mr. Burch’s freedom.

A senior tribesman in Marib said negotiations began last year after two visits to the province by American diplomats, including the United States ambassador to Yemen, Matthew H. Tueller. A State Department spokeswoman in Washington declined to comment.

People familiar with his kidnapping said Mr. Burch was moved several times from one heavily guarded compound to another. Any rescue, they said, would have involved a firefight.

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One United States official said the C.I.A. played a role in the rescue operation but gave no details. American Special Forces were not involved, a second United States official said. A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates declined to comment.

The raid was a potentially risky gambit for Mr. Trump.

In January 2017, just days into his presidency, Mr. Trump ordered a botched American Special Operations raid in Yemen that led to the death of a member of the Navy SEALs, Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens. The dead sailor’s father, Bill Owens, later criticized the operation as “a screw-up from the start that ended badly.”

AFP.

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