A British man is believed to be among nine foreigners, including women and children, taken hostage by gunmen in Yemen while on a picnic in a remote part of the country.
Seven of those kidnapped are said to be Germans, three of them children, and two of them nurses who worked at a local hospital. A Korean woman teacher, a friend of the Briton, who is believed to be an engineer, is also among those seized.
The group, some of whom had links with a Christian Baptist charity, were last seen on Friday. The Yemeni government accused the Huithi Zaidi rebel organisation, active in the area, of carrying out the kidnapping – a claim immediately denied by the insurgents.
Around 200 foreigners have been abducted in Yemen in the last 15 years; most of them have been freed unharmed. Two dozen foreign medics, mainly Arabs, held by tribesmen in the Amran region, were freed over the weekend following negotiations.
However the latest kidnapping comes in the wake of a warning by the US authorities that al-Qa'ida members, under pressure in Pakistan from US Predator air strikes and a government military offensive, are relocating to new bases in Yemen. Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, cited Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden's family, and Somalia as the countries where the Islamist fighters were seeking refuge.
The abductions also came after the Yemeni authorities arrested Hasan Hessian Bin Alwan, a Saudi national, allegedly a key player in organising al-Qa'ida finances in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and the man who had arranged funding for a number of Islamist terrorist attacks.
The issue of Britons being taken hostage is currently a matter of particular sensitivity after a Briton taken prisoner in Mali, in west Africa, by Tuareg tribesmen was handed over to Islamists and beheaded. The group Al-Qa'ida in Islamic Maghreb said it had carried out the murder after the refusal of the British government to release Abu Qatada – a terror suspect who had been described as bin Laden's representative in Europe.
In 1998 three Britons and an Australian were killed in Yemen during an attempt by government forces to rescue them from Islamist captors. Abu Hamza, the radical British based fundamentalist cleric now awaiting extradition to the US, was accused by the Yemeni authorities of providing aid for the Islamists. His son, Mohammed Mustapha Kemal, was later imprisoned for three years in Sanaa on terrorism charges.
The Foreign Office said yesterday that it was looking into the reports of the kidnappings. The German foreign ministry said it was in close touch with the Yemeni authorities. A South Korean government spokesman said: "It is presumed that a South Korean woman has been kidnapped by a local armed group." He confirmed that a "Miss Eom", 34, had disappeared after joining friends for a trip to the countryside.
The area where the foreigners went missing, the north-western province of Saada, near the border with Saudi Arabia, has seen repeated clashes between government forces and the Huithi Zaidi rebels, who are Shias in a predominantly Sunni country. There have been thousands of casualties.
A peace deal was recently signed, under Qatari auspices, between the government and the rebel group but the truce has broken down several times amid mutual accusations of bad faith.
Robert Emerson, a security analyst with experience of the region, said that "It is indeed the case that most foreign hostages in Yemen had been freed in the past. But the place has also seen a series of bomb attacks and there is a serious threat from militant Islamists.
"The government has not produced any evidence that these people were taken by the Huithi Zaidis; in any event, they are Shias and do not have links with al-Qa'ida. The real danger would be if they somehow end up in the hands of jihadists," he said.