Italy blocks Yemeni attack to free hostages

SANAA (AFP) — Italy’s ambassador to Yemen on Tuesday blocked an assault by security forces to release five Italians amid fears for the hostages lives, a top local official told AFP.
“After a number of tribal leaders failed (in the mediation efforts), the Yemeni authorities seriously considered to launch a military operation against the hostage-takers to free the hostages,” said the official.

“The security and military plan was ready, but the Italian ambassador opposed the military intervention, fearing for their (hostages) lives,” he said on condition of anonymity.

The hostage-takers have issued two warnings that they would execute the hostages if such an assault took place.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said on Monday that “the Yemeni authorities have control of the area where the hostages are being held, and the main objective is to guarantee their safety.”

Yemeni army and security forces have been besieging the tribal area where the Italian tourists were being held, in the presence of army chief of staff Brigadier General Ali Mohammed Al Qassimi.

Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul Kader Bajammal reiterated on Tuesday that the government would not negotiate with the hostage-takers.

“The Yemeni government will not negotiate with the hostage-takers, will act with determination and will strike with an iron fist,” Bajammal told reporters.

Yemeni “security services, in cooperation with the armed forces … are closing their siege early Tuesday on the area where the hostage-takers of the five Italian tourists are,” said an interior ministry source.

“There will be no leniency with these criminals who harmed the reputation of our nation, its economy… as well as the investment and touristic activities,” the source was quoted as saying by the state news agency Saba.

A delegation of local tribal leaders had attempted on Monday to negotiate with the captors at their hideout in the town of Sirwa, in the Marib region 170 kilometres east of Sanaa.

But security sources told AFP that the captors — who belong to the Al Zaydi clan and are demanding the release of eight members of their clan imprisoned for a vendetta — continued to refuse to release the hostages.

On Monday, a tribal source close to the captors told AFP that the tribesmen threatened to kill the hostages if government forces raided their hideout.

A similar threat was published in a statement by one of the alleged hostage-takers on a private Internet site close to Yemeni tribes, “Mareb Press.”

“Mohammed Mabkhout Al Zaydi threatened to kill the Italian tourists and has claimed the freedom of tribesmen detained” in Yemeni government prisons, said the statement.

The kidnapping of the five Italians occurred the day after a German family of five, including a retired top diplomat, were freed and was the fourth abduction of foreigners in the country within the space of three months.

The Italian news agency Ansa reported on Monday that the five Italians were a doctor, Piergiorgio Gamba, two teachers Maura Tonetto and Camilla Ramigni, driving school head Enzo Botillo, 51, and a third woman, Patrizia Rossi.

They were among a group of 16 travelling with tour operator Avventure nel Mondo (World Adventure), which told Ansa they were heading for an archaeological site when one of their vehicles, travelling in a convoy, was stopped by gunmen.

Local Yemeni government sources said the three women hostages on Sunday refused to be released and instead insisted on returning to their two male companions who were still being held captive.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh late Sunday dismissed the governors of Marib and Shabwa, in a move apparently related to the recurring abductions in the tribal regions.

Nearly all of the kidnappings in Yemen have been carried out by tribesmen seeking to put pressure on the central government and the hostages have generally been released unharmed.

However, three Britons and an Australian seized by Islamist militants were killed when security forces stormed their hideout in December 1998.

Despite its proximity to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries and more than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in the past decade.

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