Hostages in blood money stand-off

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The Independent Online
COMPLICATIONS have arisen over the release of two British and four Dutch hostages kidnapped last week by Yemeni tribesmen.

The kidnappers are demanding the release of two members of their tribe being held in jail on a murder charge. But they will not be freed unless agreement can be reached with the family of their alleged victim over the payment of "blood money" as compensation, Yemeni sources say.

Eddie and Mary Rosser, British aid workers, were taken hostage with Hans Koolstra, his wife and two children, by members of the Bakhil tribal federation who stopped their car on the road between the capital Sanaa and Sadah.

Negotiations broke down earlier in the week over the question of the release of two members of the tribe held for murder. The families of murder victims in Yemen normally demand the killers' execution unless they are paid compensation under tribal law.

The hostages are being well-treated and there is no immediate threat to their safety, according to reports from the negotiators.

Meanwhile an exodus is beginning among the 500-strong British community in Yemen, half of whom work for oil companies. The Foreign Office has advised British nationals in Yemen "to consider whether their presence is absolutely essential and, if not, to leave". It points out that 11 members of the group that killed four hostages - three Britons and one Australian - on 28 December are still at large.

The new Foreign Office advice says those who remain in Yemen should review their security arrangements and "avoid all travel on roads outside the main town". The oil companies provide armed guards for their employees and, in some cases, have forbidden them even to visit downtown Sanaa or big hotels such as the Taj Sheba and the Sheraton, where foreigners congregate.

British exports to Yemen were only pounds 77m in 1998 and there are no British companies with large staffs in the country. While British tourists do visit Yemen, most tourism is from Italy, Germany and France.

Other foreign embassies in Sanaa were taking a more relaxed view. One west European diplomat said: "Maybe the British have perceived that they are targets and are in a different position from ourselves."

Although there have been three different kidnappings involving British citizens since late December it is unclear if they are being deliberately selected. In the most recent cases, the evidence is that they were not. The oil worker John Brooke was taken hostage on 9 January when he challenged a man who had entered the company compound. The kidnappers who ambushed Mr and Mrs Rosser were apparently intent on taking prisoner the first foreigners they saw.