12 Britons kidnapped in Yemen

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The Independent Online
TWELVE young British tourists were ambushed and taken hostage in Yemen yesterday by "Islamic fundamentalists" after a gun battle. The six women and six men were among 17 Western tourists in a convoy of five vehicles attacked on the road to Aden by 10 men armed with Kalashnikovs and bazookas.

During shooting between the attackers and police escorting the holidaymakers, a British tourist and a Yemeni guide escaped. They are believed to have reached Mawdiyah, in Abyan province. The rest of the party - the 12 Britons, together with two American women and two Australian men - were driven off by the raiders into Abyan, 175 miles from the capital, Sanaa, as police searched the area.

Reports last night said the tourists were abducted by the Islamic Jihad group, which is demanding the release of its leader, Saleh Hiadara al- Atwi, and another senior figure arrested by Yemeni authorities.The arrests followed militancy by the group, in which activists flogged men for selling alcohol and women for failing to adhere to a strict Muslim dress code.

"This is an extreme splinter group... I think they will use the hostages as bargaining chips to get their leaders released. These abductions can be an overnight business or they can go on for a while," a Yemeni journalist said.

The tourists were with the Explore Worldwide company, based in Aldershot, Hampshire, which had organised the trip with a local operator, Yahya Al- Haifi, who said: "We are in contact with all the governments and everyone else... we hope this problem will be finished quickly." A team leader with Explore Worldwide said in Sanaa: "I have been instructed by my company not to say anything, but I can confirm no one was hurt."

Another group of tourists, with the travel company Caravan Tours escaped possible capture because they stopped to buy vegetables at a market.

Tour guide Nick Green, of London, said: "We waved at the other group as they overtook us. They then drove straight into the kidnap gang's roadblock. On previous occasions hostages have been treated well but they have been used as bargaining chips in negotiations with the government in return for the government spending on things like education."

The abductions bring to 20 the Westerners held hostage in Yemen. The Bani Dhabyan tribe is holding four Germans, three women and a man, in Marib province.

The Foreign Office said it was in touch with the Yemeni government and was seeking clarification of what happened.The holidaymakers were believed to be on a desert safari and were on their way from the town of Habban to Aden.

More than a hundred foreigners, including diplomats and oil workers, have been abducted since 1992. The government believes that many kidnappings are inspired by the political opposition, with financial backing from Saudi Arabia.

The government recently imposed the death penalty for kidnappings which, it says, are damaging the tourist trade. But it is keen not to publicise hostage-taking, because of its harmful effect on the industry.

In April this year David Mitchell, of Sidley, East Sussex, was kidnapped in Yemen with his wife, Carolyn, and teenage son Ben and held for a month. They were on their way to catch a flight home for the Easter holidays. They were freed after negotiations between the kidnappers and government.

Mr Mitchell, who worked for the British Council in Yemen, returned to his post until the contract ended in September. Last night he said his captors had treated them well. "One of the key things was that the security forces should not attempt anything, because obviously people might get hurt."

In October last year Henry Thompson, a 38-year-old British aid worker, was kidnapped by tribesmen. A specialist in water projects, he was held for 18 days in northern Yemen. He was released safely after negotiations between the tribesmen and Yemeni government. He wrote a letter forwarded by his kidnappers which read: "We are very comfortable, well-fed and the people are courteous."

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