It is the world's most bizarre kidnapping campaign, but its aim is very clear. The Hada tribe, which controls the main road south of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, wants the government to execute four men by firing squad. The tribesmen, all of whom are armed, want them to die because last year they were convicted of raping a 10-year-old boy who belonged to the Hada.
Just before Christmas, the Hada saw one of its demands met. A government firing squad carried out the public execution of Mohammed Abdul Rahman Dadiya in Dhamar, an ancient city of cut stone tower blocks, 60 miles south of Sana'a. But the Hada tribe is proving unrelenting. It wants three other men - convicted of kidnapping the boy, though not of rape, and sentenced to between five and ten years in prison and 100 lashes - to be shot.
To get their way, the tribespeople have started a campaign of kidnapping. The latest to be snatched was the wife of the South Korean consul, her three-year-old daughter and a Korean businessman. They were kidnapped last Monday in the heart of Sana'a when the embassy driver stopped in a market to buy a watermelon and a gunman jumped into the car. After skirmishing between the army and armed tribesmen, all three were released unharmed in Dhamar, where they had been taken.
The abduction of the Koreans was just the latest incident in the Hada tribe's campaign. In October, tribesmen kidnapped two Russian doctors and held them for two weeks. At about the same time, the Hada blocked the main road south from the capital and fought a battle with the army in which one soldier and three tribesmen are believed to have been killed.
All this is very damaging for Yemen, a desperately poor nation of 17 million people tucked into the south-west corner of the Arabian peninsula. Since 1992, some 100 foreigners have been kidnapped, ostensibly to pressure the government to provide social services such as electricity, roads and medical facilities. In practice government officials say the kidnappers want money and gifts such as four-wheel drive vehicles.
Even though the kidnap victims are almost invariably released unharmed, the ease with which the tribes can seize them underlines the lack of government control outside the main cities. The situation is also getting a worse. Last October, Henry Thompson, a British aid worker, was seized as he drove on the main road south of Sana'a, while four French tourists were kidnapped in the north by a local sheikh who demanded pounds 30,000 and vehicles as ransom.
The Yemeni government tries to portray the kidnappings as the outcome of quaint tribal customs and emphasises that victims are never hurt. Many have been invited to attend tribal feasts. But the reality is not quite so benign. The driver of one potential kidnap victim was killed last year. Not surprisingly fewer and fewer tourists are likely to visit Yemen even though the tour companies try to pay off the tribes.
The Yemeni foreign minister, Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, more or less openly blames Saudi Arabia for fomenting the kidnap campaign to keep its southern neighbour weak. This is vehemently denied by the Saudi government. But in December the government put on trial 27 people in the southern city of Aden whose leader, a businessman of Syrian descent, said he had been paid $150,000 (pounds 92,000) down and $1,200 a month by Saudi Arabia to carry out political assassinations, bomb attacks and kidnappings.
It is not clear if the Hada will get their way and see the three other alleged rapists executed in the muddy central square of Dhamar. But Yemen is already paying a high price as it acquires the reputation of being the kidnap capital of the world, which foreigners - businessmen or tourists - will avoid as they did Lebanon when Islamic militants were snatching Westerners from streets of Beirut and holding them hostage.Reuse content