Yemen `stalls' Yard kidnap investigation

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The Independent Online
YEMENI AUTHORITIES appear to be involved in a cover-up over the deaths of the four Western tourists kidnapped in Yemen.Scotland Yard detectives have been denied permission to interview the kidnappers' alleged leader, Zain al-Abdeen Abu Bakr al-Mehdar, who is also known as "Abu Hassan".

Last night officials in London described the Yemeni order to the two detectives to leave the southern Yemeni city of Aden as a bureaucratic "glitch" that had been countermanded byYemen's Interior Minister. Hopefully, they would now be able "to go where they want and interview who they want".

Mystery still surrounds the assault by Yemeni forces on the kidnappers, in which three Britons and an Australian were killed. Despite claims by the Yemeni government that the kidnappers were unwilling to negotiate, Abu Hassan and his Islamic Jihad followers are well known to the government, which had been negotiating with them as recently as 40 days before the kidnapping.

They also have ties with the exiled Saudi dissident and suspected terrorist organiser, Osama bin Laden.

Abu Hassan is reported to have met with senior Yemeni military authorities in the capital, Sanaa, last November to secure funding promised by the government for Islamic Jihad's support in Yemen's 1994 civil war. But his request was refused, and in retaliation the group sought to increase pressure on the government.

Hence the kidnap of the 16 Western hostages on 29 December of whom four were killed in a rescue attempt.

A key figure in the story is Sheikh Tariq al-Fadhli, exiled after the Marxists took over South Yemen in the late Sixties and later an Arab volunteer in Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union. He is a personal friend of Mr bin Laden.

Mr Fadhli is a Sheikh of the Maraqish tribe who inhabit the mountains of south Yemen where the recent kidnappings took place.

After the Afghan war, Mr Fadhli returned to Yemen, seeking revenge on the socialist party which had forced his family into exile. With financial support from Yemeni merchants in Saudi Arabia, Mr Fadhli built up a small tribal army. When Yemen's civil war broke out in May 1994, Mr Fadhli openly supported the northern forces, becoming a commander of the second brigade, made up of ex-Afghan mujahedin and tribesmen.

After the war ended, the victorious Yemeni president Lt-Gen Ali Abdullah Saleh rewarded Mr Fadhli by renewing his hereditary title of Sultan, restoring his family's extensive landholdings, and appointing him to the upper house of parliament, the consultative council. But if Mr Fadhli joined the establishment, his followers - including Abu Hassan - did not.

Today, Abu Hassan may well hold the answers to the central questions about the kidnap.

He also knows a lot about official Yemeni involvement in the affairs of Islamic Jihad and for that reason it is small wonder the authorities seem unwilling to let him spend any time with the men from Scotland Yard - and would far prefer to see him swiftly executed.

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