Yemen raises stakes with new claim of kidnap conspiracy

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THE YEMENI authorities stoked up the diplomatic dispute with Britain over last month's kidnapping - in which four Western tourists were killed - by alleging that the gang had sought the release of fellow conspirators who were British.

Analysts in London dismissed the claim, saying it was part of an effort to derail the investigation into the causes of the kidnap.

The Yemeni Interior Minister, General Hussein Arab, told cabinet colleagues this week that the group had kidnapped the 16 Western tourists to force the release of eight group members arrested on 24 December. Seven of those arrested were British and one French, General Arab said.

They had come from London "in co-ordination" with the kidnappers' leader, Abu Hassan. Local sources named a Birmingham resident as one of the people arrested.

The man, said to be about 20 years old, was born in south Yemen and moved to Britain as an infant.

Relatives yesterday dismissed claims of his involvement with terrorists, saying he had travelled to Yemen in July to study Arabic and was accompanied by his mother.

"The family was notified of his arrest two to three weeks ago," one relative said. Yesterday the man's father left for Yemen to visit him in prison.

Other sources said sympathisers would petition the Yemeni authorities for the man's release.

The Foreign Office was notified earlier this week that six British citizens had been arrested in Yemen and is seeking to confirm the claims. "If they are British citizens, then we are obliged to provide consular assistance," a spokesman said.

Analysts dismissed General Arab's claims, calling them tactics to divert attention from the main inquiry into the kidnapping. "The Yemeni government is now attempting to implicate Britain in the kidnapping of its own tourists," one said. "It is a diplomatic offensive, and one the Yemenis are determined to win."

Relations between the two countries have been strained since the kidnapping amid claims that the four deaths were provoked by Yemen's own security services during its bungled attempt to free the hostages. Some of the survivors later claimed they were pressured by Yemeni secret police to doctor their accounts to absolve Yemen of any blame. But, after a private briefing with the Foreign Office minister Joyce Quin, those claims were retracted in efforts to smooth the way for closer co-operation between the two countries.

Four Scotland Yard detectives travelled to Yemen over the weekend to assist Yemeni authorities with their investigations. But two of them were told on Tuesday to leave Aden, where they were investigating the deaths. The Foreign Office later said there had been an administrative glitch over the matter and that the detectives would remain in the country.

Scotland Yard yesterday confirmed the detectives were still in Yemen, but would not say if they would be allowed to visit the site of the killings or interview the gang's leader.

American and British investigators have asked Yemen to delay the trial, scheduled to open shortly, but it was not clear last night whether that request would be granted.

The kidnappers are believed to be members of Islamic Jihad, a militant group in south Yemen.

The government had been moving against its leaders after members of the group tried to force Yemeni villagers to conform to strict Islamic law.

They also said they were avenging the recent air strikes on Iraq by American and British forces.