SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen freed at least three suspected Iranian Revolutionary Guard members on Thursday who had been held for months over alleged ties to a Shi’ite Muslim insurgent group that has seized control of much of the capital Sanaa, a senior official said.
The takeover by the Shi’ite Houthi rebels came hours before a power-sharing accord was signed with other political parties providing for the creation of a new government.
That effectively made the Houthis the main power brokers in Yemen, a U.S.-allied country whose political, tribal and sectarian turmoil poses risks to No. 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door.
It was not immediately clear why the release, which the official said was originally part of a deal to stem the Houthi advance on Sanaa, went ahead. But it suggested the Shi’ite group was now dictating terms in the capital.
The release of the Iranians came a day after Yemen freed two suspected members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, the official said. They had been held for two to three years in the southern port city of Aden where they had been captured on suspicion of planning to provide military training to the Houthis, he said.
Oman, which maintains good ties with Iran and had helped free Iranians held in the West in the past, helped in the release, the official said.
“The Iranians were freed and handed over to the Omani mediators,” the official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters. He said the men were freed in Aden.
Another Yemeni source confirmed that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi personally ordered the release on Omani mediation. No comment was immediately available from Omani or Iranian officials.
Several Arab newspapers, including the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, had reported that the suspected Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard members were detained earlier this year on suspicion of spying and providing training and logistical support for the Houthis.
The official said further releases were expected. Nine Yemenis jailed for involvement in smuggling arms aboard an Iranian ship intercepted off the coast in January 2013 were due to be freed on Friday and the case to be closed.
U.S. and Yemeni officials said at the time the vessel, the Jihan 1, was carrying a cache of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, being smuggled from Iran to insurgents in Yemen.
The official said the release of the Iranians and the Lebanese had been agreed with Tehran in a deal with Sanaa’s security service intended to stave off a planned Houthi assault on Sanaa.
But the Houthis, who hail from the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam, went ahead anyway with their takeover of Sanaa on Sunday, after days of clashes with soldiers and armed men that they said were linked to the Sunni Muslim Islah party.
Hadi has accused Iran of meddling in Yemeni affairs and had asked his Iranian counterpart to stop backing unidentified armed groups in the country. Iran has denied such accusations, as well as any connection with the arms found aboard the Jihan 1.
Hadi warned Yemenis their country could be heading toward civil war with the Houthi ascendancy. The Houthis have not made clear if the new deal will satisfy their demands or embolden them to seek further power.
Yemen is fragmented by tribal and sectarian divisions, and any renewed fighting could allow an array of other factions, including southern separatists, former autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh and even al Qaeda to take advantage.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean and Dominic Evans