French hostages in Yemen freed

SANAA (AFP) — Four French nationals kidnapped by Yemeni tribesmen two weeks ago have been freed and are well, state-owned news agency Saba said Monday.

The French ambassador to Yemen could not immediately confirm the release of the Frenchmen, who were seized in the town of Ataq, in Shabwa province southeast of Sanaa, on September 10.

“The tourists have been transported on a military helicopter, and are on their way to Sanaa. They are in good health,” Saba said quoting its correspondent in Shabwa.

They were “released following negotiations with the captors and tribal mediation, not by force,” it said quoting a security official in the region.

Lawmaker Awadh Bawazir, a tribal notable, had told AFP earlier the hostages were freed, saying that he saw them.

“They are free … I was with them when they were released,” he said.

A helicopter had been chartered to take the tourists to Ataq from where they were to travel on to Sanaa, said Bawazir, who has in the past been involved in mediating the release of Western hostages.

The police chief in Shabwa province, Abderrahman Hanache, had also confirmed the releases.

The French foreign ministry in Paris said it had yet to be formally notified of the releases.

On Sunday, newly reelected Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh had said the four tourists would be released “within hours”.

The kidnappers had been demanding the release of relatives held by the authorities. They previously briefly held a German family and accused the authorities of reneging on the agreement that paved the way for their release.

But Saleh, who won another seven-year term as president, said last week that the kidnappers “want to blackmail us” and that “serious and firm measures will be taken against the kidnappers.” An interior ministry official said security forces were still looking for the captors, according to Saba news agency.

The day before Yemen’s presidential election on Wednesday last week, Saleh had said the hostages would be freed “by the end of the week”.

Tribal leaders involved in the negotiations with the hostage-takers had said a deal on offer for the Frenchmen’s release focused on a personal pledge from the president to address their demands after the election.

Mediators had sought to secure the hostages’ release with an offer of substitute hostages from the families of provincial officials, but the deal fell through at the last minute after one of the officials declined to deliver his son as promised.

The five relatives whose release the kidnappers are seeking would be transferred to the capital from the southern province of Abyan where they are currently being held pending the president’s decision, one of the negotiators told AFP last week.

Foreigners are frequently seized by Yemen’s powerful tribes for use as bargaining chips in disputes with the central government.

More than 200 have been abducted during the past 15 years.

The hostages have all been freed unharmed except for three Britons and an Australian seized by militants in December 1998. They were killed when security forces stormed the kidnappers’ hideout.

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