Last updated: 1 February, 2012

UN working for safe release of Yemen aid workers

Four international aid workers kidnapped by gunmen north of the Yemeni capital have been released, the minister who led mediation efforts to free them said on Wednesday.

Electricity Minister Saleh Sumai told AFP that the Colombian, German, Iraqi and Palestinian workers and their two local drivers were freed in Wadi Ahjar, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) northwest of Sanaa, the same area where they were taken hostage on Tuesday.

A UN employee told AFP Tuesday that all the hostages worked at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The Iraqi and the Palestinian were women.

The United Nations said Wednesday it was working closely with the Yemeni government to get the four aid workers released and had set up a crisis coordination centre in Sanaa and New York.

The group was taken hostage as they were returning to Sanaa from a “displaced persons’ camp in the town of Hard, in (the northern) Hajja province,” Yemen’s official Saba new agency reported Tuesday.

The abductors were calling for the release of “Ali Ghanem al-Zubairi, held at the central prison in Sanaa on criminal charges,” reported Saba.

A tribal chief involved in the negotiations however told AFP earlier that Zubairi’s release was unlikely because he was convicted of murder.

Yemen’s powerful tribes often kidnap foreigners to use as bargaining chips with the authorities. More than 200 foreigners have been abducted over the past 15 years. Almost all were later freed unharmed.

The latest was Norwegian United Nations Development Programme employee Gert Danielsen, who was snatched from Sanaa on January 14 by tribesmen aiming to put pressure on the government to release relatives held for killing four soldiers. He was freed a week ago.

A French aid worker was also kidnapped in November for two days by the autonomist Southern Movement which was seeking the release of activists held into custody.

Earlier in November, three French hostages kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants arrived home after more than five months in captivity. Tribal sources said a ransom was paid, though Paris denied this.

Over the past year, the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation has been the scene of nationwide protests against veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which have resulted in deadly violence.

Hundreds were killed before Saleh finally signed a transfer of power deal with the parliamentary opposition in November under which he agreed to hand his authority to his deputy.

Saleh left the country last week after MPs passed a law giving him blanket immunity against prosecution, as protesters remained on the streets demanding that he face trial.