Yemenis `stalling kidnap inquiry'

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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, also known as Abu Hassan.

On Tuesday two British detectives were ordered to leave Aden. Last night officials in London described this as a "bureaucratic glitch" that had been countermanded byYemen's Interior Minister. It was hoped 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 died. 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 Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi dissident and suspected terrorist organiser.

Abu Hassan is reported to have met senior Yemeni military authorities in November to secure funding promised by the government in return for Islamic Jihad's support in Yemen's 1994 civil war. But his request was refused. In retaliation, the group sought to increase pressure on the government. Hence the kidnap of the 16 Western hostages on 29 December.

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 friend of Mr bin Laden.

Mr Fadhli is a sheikh of the Maraqish tribe, which inhabits the mountains of south Yemen, where the 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, he built up a small tribal army.

Between 1990 and 1994 he and his force played a key role in Yemeni politics, serving the government as a covert instrument of terror against the Yemen Socialist Party, but they also had international targets.

In September 1992, during Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, Mr Fadhli's fighters were responsible for the bombings of two hotels in Aden which housed US troops. When Yemen's civil war broke out in May 1994, he openly supported the northern forces, becoming a commander of the Second Brigade, made up of ex-Afghan mujahedin and tribesmen.

After the war, the victorious Yemeni president, 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, at home and abroad. 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.