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Yemeni Commandos Free Saudi Ambassador

April 20, 1992

SAN’A, Yemen (AP) _ A commando disguised as a waiter threw hot tea in the face of a gunman holding the Saudi ambassador hostage Monday, allowing soldiers to storm in and end a 19-hour standoff.

The incident - in which the gunman demanded $1 million in ransom - threatened to further strain relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which have been cool since the government in San’a supported Iraq during the Gulf War. However, the standoff also necessitated direct contacts between the two countries, and the Saudis authorized the rescue in advance.

The Saudi government denounced the kidnapping of Ambassador Ali Kafaidi, 55, as a ″terrorist act″ and a ″flagrant violation of all diplomatic norms.″ The statement was echoed by the Yemeni Foreign Ministry, which condemned ″all acts of terrorism ... and all attempts to mark the brotherly relations between the two countries.″

In a telephone interview from his home after his release, Kafaidi said a soldier pretending to be a waiter splashed hot tea on the gunman and more commandos crashed into the office to subdue the man.

″It all happened very fast, and two shots went off from his gun,″ he said. ″First it was the waiter, then suddenly the room was full of Yemeni security. They all came down on the man, snatched the guns and hand grenade from him.″

He said the man tried to grab a bag he claimed was booby-trapped, but the commandos held him back.

″I don’t think anyone was hurt. They pulled me out of the room fast. The man looked stunned. He didn’t utter a word,″ said Kafaidi, who has served in San’a since 1985.

The ambassador said his faith in God and thought of his wife and two young children kept him going.

Official statements identified the assailant as Mathar Gameel al-Matari. The ambassador said his captor, a Yemeni in his 30s, had told him he was sorry, ″but that he was doing what he did because he badly needed the money.″

The ambassador said he was freed at 8 a.m. after a sleepless night.

He said the man raced past Yemeni guards outside the embassy and broke into his office about 1 p.m. Sunday and seized him and his aide, Abdul-Aziz Fathi.

He later let Fathi go.

Ties have been strained between Yemen and Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War, when Yemen sided with Iraq and Yemenis staged demonstrations at U.S., Saudi and Egyptian embassies.

Saudi Arabia retaliated by expelling 1 million Yemeni laborers and cutting its multimillion-dollar economic aid to the Red Sea country, one of the poorest in the Arab world.

Last week, Saudi Arabia warned foreign oil companies that operations along the Yemeni-Saudi border encroached upon the territory of the kingdom, reviving an old territorial dispute.

During the standoff, however, Yemeni Interior Minister Ghalib al-Qamash was in constant contact with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz. An official statement issued in San’a said the Saudi prince sanctioned the rescue operation before it was attempted.

Yemeni President Ali Saleh was the first to telephone the Saudi ambassador to wish him well after the incident.

Update hourly