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16 Tourists Kidnapped in Yemen

December 29, 1998

SAN`A, Yemen (AP) _ Yemeni officials started negotiations with Islamic militants today for the release of 16 Western tourists while security forces encircled the area where the militants are said to be holding the hostages.

Gov. Ahmad Ali Mohsen of Abyan province, where the kidnapping took place, is talking with leaders of the captors’ Al-Fadl tribe, an official at the governor’s office said.

Mohsen was accompanied by Islamic personalities influential with the abductors, the official said on condition of anonymity.

A security official said about 200 troops were deployed in Abyan today.

The kidnapping took place Monday near the southern town of Mawdiyah, about 175 miles south of the capital, San`a. The hostages include 12 Britons _ six males and six females _ two American women and two Australian men.

Britain’s ambassador to Yemen, Victor Henderson, told Britain’s Sky News that the hostages were well and that no one had been harmed.

Kidnapping of tourists by tribes is a commonly used method in Yemen to gain concessions from the government such as new roads, water supplies or clinics. The hostages are usually released unharmed.

But this is the first time an abduction has been carried out by Islamic militants. Security officials said the kidnappers belong to Islamic Jihad, many of whose leaders fought in Afghanistan and are believed to have connections with Egyptian Muslim radicals.

The group is demanding the release of its leader, Saleh Haidara al-Atwi, who was arrested two weeks ago as part of a government crackdown on Islamic vigilantes enforcing strict Islamic rules in southern Yemen.

The kidnappers also are demanding the release of another leader, security officials said. They did not identify him.

They said Islamic Jihad members flogged women for ignoring the Islamic dress code and men for selling and drinking alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam.

The group, which has no more than 200 members, also ran a military camp in southern Yemen, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said the kidnappers, who included 10 gunmen and eight others, ambushed a convoy of five vehicles in which the tourists were traveling and opened fire on a number of policemen escorting them.

The gunmen threatened to kill the hostages if the police didn’t back off, said one official, who said that all of the gunmen sported beards typical of Islamists and had received military training.

The British tour leader and a Yemeni guide escaped and notified authorities.

The Australian Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that handles Yemen, said a diplomat was on his way to San`a today to try to secure the release of the hostages.

A British couple and their teen-age son were kidnapped in April but released unharmed a month later.

Four Germans also are being held currently by a tribe in northeast Yemen. The kidnappers are demanding more schools, hospitals and telephone lines in their area.

Yemen was once a haven for Islamic militant fugitives from other countries, but the government has expelled many of them.

Update hourly