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Militants in Yemen hold nine as hunt intensifies

Yemeni militants hold nine foreigners, including women and children, but rebel leader denies kidnappings.

SANA'A// Nine foreign nationals, including women and children, are still missing in the northern province of Sa'ada after disappearing on Friday night.Yemeni authorities say al Houthi Shiite rebels, who have been fighting the government since 2004, kidnapped the group, which includes seven German nationals, a British engineer and a female South Korean teacher. "This kidnapping carries the mark of al Houthis, which we all know well," Mutahar al Masri, the interior minister, said yesterday at a ceremony inaugurating the security press office of his ministry."I am receiving information every now and then, which I cannot provide now. But, what I can say is that the security apparatuses are working seriously to secure the release of the hostages. "We are following up the situation and we hope they will be released soon."The interior ministry said the group, which includes a German couple, three children and two female nurses, was working at al Jumhuri public hospital and had been kidnapped on Friday in Sa'ada. However, the office of the rebel leader, Abdulmalik al Houthi, emphatically denied any involvement in the group's disappearance, referring to the government's accusations of "political intrigue"."The authority's charges are completely false and groundless; it is a kind of political intrigue. These charges are a sign of the authorities' bankruptcy and tottering," Mr al Houthi's office said in a press statement yesterday. The statement said the hostages were kidnapped from an area close to the grounds of a government intelligence agency. It also said the authorities were responsible for the fate of the foreigners.The German Embassy in Sana'a could not confirm the kidnapping but said a group of German nationals are still missing."We do not have information on possible kidnapping of a group of German nationals. We are in close contact with the Yemen interior ministry. Nobody has information about the kidnapping. What we can say is that a group of Germans are missing," said a source at the embassy, requesting anonymity.This incident comes just a day after 24 medics who had been kidnapped in the northern province of Amran by armed tribesmen were released. The kidnappers wanted to pressure the government to release some of their relatives. The government yesterday also blamed al Houthi rebels for that kidnapping, which the al Houthis again denied."We are sure this conspiracy, like others, will fail ? The authorities use such criminal acts to tarnish our reputation and gain sympathy and regional and international alliances," the al Houthi statement said, adding that the government accusations are meant to justify launching another offensive against them.Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, announced an end to hostilities with the al Houthis in July 2008, but the truce is at risk of collapse following sporadic clashes since April.Several people were reportedly killed and injured in confrontations this year in Sa'ada, the al Houthis' stronghold, which has endured five rounds of fighting between the two sides since 2004.Yemen, known as the origin of all Arabs, has a range of tourist attractions. However, terrorist attacks by al Qa'eda militants and kidnappings and subsequent travel warnings have dented the country's earning potential. According to the tourism ministry's statistics, there was a slight drop in the number of tourists in 2007 to 379,390 from 382,332 in 2006. Last year, Yemen had more than a million visitors, but about 60 per cent of them were Yemeni expatriates mainly living in the Gulf countries, according to Mr Ahmed al Bail, the executive director of the ministry of tourism's promotion body. The country's tourism industry employs about 90,000 people and brings in about US$886 million (Dh3.25 billion) per year.Local tribesmen also have seen tourists as a way to leverage power. More than 220 abductions were reported countrywide between 1993 and 2009, according to government figures. The last reported kidnapping of westerners took place in March 2009, when a Dutch couple was taken hostage by tribesmen in Sana'a, who blackmailed the government into releasing some of their jailed relatives.Most hostages have been freed unharmed, but in 2000 a Norwegian diplomat was killed in crossfire and in 1998 four westerners were killed during a botched army attempt to free them from militants who had seized 16 touristsNaif Hasan, a political analyst and publisher of al Shar'e weekly newspaper, said kidnapping is a sign of government weakness."Kidnapping has unfortunately become an effective way to deal with the government; it shows the absence and weakness of the government which does not have control over all the parts of the country. Kidnapping is socially associated with the tribal mentality and the tribes use it to show they are stronger than the state," he said.Hasan said the government is responsible for the kidnapping as it repeatedly bows to the kidnappers' demands."The government has dealt with tribal kidnappers with leniency and bowed to their demands. It negotiated with them according to their own tribal norms. This has encouraged them. This nagging problem will continue as long as the tribe is strong enough to impose its conditions on the state."The exchange of accusations between the government and the al Houthis, Hasan said, shows how political kidnapping has become."It is difficult to believe the denial of al Houthis or the accusations of the government. What is dangerous is that kidnapping has become a tool of political manoeuvres where the two sides are exchanging accusations and the blame. This shows the state's predicament." malqadhi@thenational.ae

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