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Kidnappers still proving elusive

Yemen government authorities are unable to find evidence to support their claim that rebel Shiite militia are responsible for the kidnapping of nine foreign nationals.

SANA'A // Two weeks after nine foreign nationals were kidnapped in Yemen's Sa'ada governate - and a week after three of their bodies were found - government authorities have been unable to provide any evidence to support their claim that a rebel Shiite militia was responsible, leaving the door open for speculation about the identity of the captors as well as political manipulation of the issue by both the state and rebels.

In Yemen, the kidnapping of foreigners, a strategy that began in the early 1990s, has typically been carried out by tribesmen who use the captives to leverage the government to agree to development projects in their region or other political demands. The hostages are almost always released unharmed. However, this case is different, not only because of the murders, but because it has taken place in Sa'ada, a front line for political and tribal conflict and a haven for drugs traffickers and gun runners. Such a volatile mix of competing and overlapping groups and motives has made any speculation about either convoluted at best.

The involvement of an al Qa'eda-linked group has been discounted by some analysts. First, all three hostages killed last week were women and al Qa'eda rarely kills female hostages; second, their presence in the mountainous region dominated by the Shiite al Houthi rebels is not strong enough to carry out such an operation, nor would they have the ability to escape and hide freely without being spotted by security forces or the Shiite guerrillas.

But others have argued that the ostensible objective of the hostage-taking - frightening foreigners into leaving the country - fits with al Qa'eda's philosophy and could represent the beginning of a new al Qa'eda tactic in Yemen. Moreover, the kidnapped group, which included seven Germans, a British engineer and a South Korean teacher, worked at a Sa'ada hospital for World Wide Services Foundation, a Dutch Christian relief group whose members have recently been accused by locals of proselytising and conducting covert missionary work, an easy justification for Salafist violence.

While the government maintains that the al Houthi were behind the operation, it is difficult to imagine how such a move would be in their interests. Their leader's brother, Yahia al Houthi lives in Germany and the US and EU have refused to label them a terrorist organisation. The murder of westerners would be politically suicidal and place them under renewed and unwanted scrutiny. The government, for its part, is keen to blame the rebels and wants to show that they are a terrorist organisation who pose a threat to westerners.

The Shiite al Houthis have been fighting the government since 2004 when the president accused an al Houthi leader of fomenting sectarian discord. The rebels continue to deny the hostage-taking accusations and blame drug traffickers for kidnapping the foreigners to influence the government to release their seized drugs. Since 2004, Sa'ada has endured a low-intensity civil war in which thousands of security forces, their allied tribesmen and rebels have been killed and injured.

The intermittent fighting has generated lasting hostilities and feuds between rebels and local tribes and has also allowed many groups to flourish by profiting from the war. It is in the favour of these tribal sheikhs, weapons traders and drug traffickers that there is violence in Sa'ada. During the Sa'ada conflict, the government encouraged radical Salafist preachers to control mosques in Sa'ada and preach against the rebels because they were Shiite.

During the civil war between the Marxist South Yemen and tribal-dominated North Yemen in 1994, the North allied with the al Houthis and encouraged them to challenge the country's Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Islah, who were then in an alliance with the Saleh regime and who now support the government. The conflict in Sa'ada has also invited meddling by interested regional powers, further muddying an easy explanation of the kidnappers' motives.

Yemen has accused Iran and Libya of supporting the al Houthi rebels in the past. The al Houthis also accuse Saudi Arabia of instigating Yemen's crackdown on them and supporting anti-Shiite groups in the region, as the Saudis are concerned that a militant Shiite group directly across the border from its own Shiite-majority province may provoke unrest there. In the most recent fighting between government troops and rebels, from 2004-08, the authorities completely restricted media access to Sa'ada.

As the situation on the ground has grown increasingly tense since April, and a fresh bout of all out fighting is expected, it is perhaps in the interest of the government and its allied groups to push western aid workers out of the potential war zone so no international witnesses remain to report on the humanitarian situation. Authorities are concerned that the fighting in Sa'ada could threaten the stability of other parts of the country.

Though unrelated to the al Houthi rebellion, recent unrest in the country's south has become increasingly violent, with daily protests again demanding separation from the north, with which it unified in 1990. In 1994 the north and south fell into civil war after a political crisis within the unity government. As the latest southern breakaway movement gains momentum, the state has been trying to manipulate the movement's members through the use of force, by arresting its leaders, which has incensed the public.

While the West has remained relatively quiet on the unrest in Yemen, it may not be able to afford to for long. The latest kidnapping and murder of foreigners may indicate a new model of violence there that is regional rather than local, and which could potentially spill across borders. malqadhi@thenational.ae

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