A British engineer was among nine foreigners, including three children, feared dead last night after they were kidnapped in northern Yemen.
Sources said initially that three female hostages had been murdered and their mutilated bodies found in the remote, mountainous northern province of Saada. A later report claimed that all nine hostages had been killed.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said diplomats were urgently trying to ascertain what had happened from Yemeni authorities, adding: "We are very concerned that bodies have been found and we are seeking details."
The Yemeni Interior Ministry said that the British man had been enjoying a picnic with a South Korean teacher, believed to be his wife, and seven German friends on Friday when they were abducted. The group included a doctor and his family as well as two nurses, who worked at the Al-Jumhuri Hospital in Saada.
Yesterday, a Yemeni security official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that all the hostages, including the children, had been found murdered. Earlier dispatches had said that shepherds had found the bodies of three women – two German nurses and the Korean teacher. Sources said they had been shot and left near the town of el-Nashour, a known hideout for al-Qai'da militants. South Korea's Foreign Ministry identified the teacher by her family name, Eom, and described her as a 34-year-old aid worker.
Yemen, the poorest Arab nation and one of the region's most unstable, has been struggling with a rebellion and increasing Islamic militancy. Thousands have died in Saada, near the border with Saudi Arabia, since a minority Shia rebellion erupted in 2004.
Kidnappings of Westerners are frequent – at least 200 foreigners have been held in the past 15 years – but most are released unharmed. Tribes seek to use them as bartering tools for concessions from the government.
On Friday, 24 workers from another hospital in Saada, including Egyptians, Indians and Filipinos, were set free after being held for one day.
The Interior Minister, Mutahar al Masri, said the latest kidnappings carried the mark of a Shia rebel group, the followers of Abdulmalik al-Huthi. However, the rebel leader's office denied any involvement in the disappearances, accusing the government of "groundless political intrigue".
President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced an end to hostilities with the Huthis in July last year but sporadic clashes that have broken out since April have put the truce at risk.
A tribal leader blamed the reported hostage deaths on al-Qai'da, which was said to be responsible for the deaths of four South Koreans in an apparent suicide bombing in March. US authorities say Islamic militants are increasingly seeking refuge in Yemen.
The ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, the country has long been a haven for Islamic militants. In October 2000, a suicide bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden killed 17 American sailors.
There were fears the latest reported deaths signified an escalation in violence, coming days after the authorities arrested the Saudi national Hassan Hussein Alwan, described as al-Qai'da's top financier in the region.
Raba Al-Rifai, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the organisation had 40 workers in the region and would be monitoring the situation closely.
"The security and safety of our staff is very important for us to be able to do our job. We do maintain an office in Saada and they are assessing the situation and trying to understand what is going on. It is a bit early to decide whether we reduce our work there."