Capture of an Austrian man and Finnish couple highlight security dangers in capital city of the strife-torn country
The kidnap of three foreigners in broad daylight, in one of the busiest and most secure streets in Sana’a, is a sign of the growing lawlessness in Yemen’s capital.
An Austrian man and a Finnish couple became on Friday the latest victims of abductions in the strife-torn country. Witnesses said the three were taken by masked gunmen as they made their way to a tailor’s shop in central Tahrir Square at about 4pm, during the busy afternoon shopping period.
Mohammed Abdullah, who sells nuts and dried fruit from a small cart on the street, said that four armed men, their faces covered with scarves, jumped on the group of foreigners as they walked along the busy thoroughfare.
“A black Suzuki Vitara pulled up and four men leaped out of the vehicle, forcing the foreigners into an electronics shop,” said Abdullah. “They seemed to be talking for some minutes in the shop before the car came back. A crowd had formed quickly, but the men were making threats with their Kalashnikovs and the car sped off [with the foreigners] towards the south of the city.”
Two of those kidnapped had been studying Arabic at a language school in Sana’a for several months. The third had arrived in Yemen just the night before to visit her husband. Witnesses said the group had seemed calm as they were driven away.
Tahrir Square, which is just seconds away from several government buildings – including the ministry of defence – usually has a strong military presence and is considered one of the safer places in the city. Historically, tribal kidnappings have been common practice in Yemen, where foreign or Yemeni hostages may be used as bargaining chips to secure the release of prisoners or to demand cash from the government.
In April, a French Red Cross aid worker was seized but later released unharmed, after a month’s tribal mediation. A Swiss woman teacher who was captured in March from the port city of Hodeida is still unaccounted for.
The latest kidnappings will raise questions about a general decline in security in Sana’a, which is facing a steep rise in crime and general lawlessness. Security analysts say this year has seen an increase in kidnappings, murders, car-jackings and the pursuit of tribal vendettas in a city that is normally immune from the tribal instability that blights large swaths of the country.
The more open display of automatic weapons by tribesmen in Sana’a coincides with a period of transition in Yemen that will be marked by the start of a “national dialogue” in the new year. The dialogue, which was brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council countries, aims to steer Yemen towards a peaceful transition after the Arab spring revolution and ousting of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime US ally.
Ginny Hill, who runs the Yemen Forum at Chatham House, said: “Although security conditions have improved since last year, when rival military factions faced off in the centre of the capital, the rule of law still feels extremely fragile.”
Media outlets frequently refer to the presence of al-Qaida gunmen in the city, but little or no evidence had been produced to support these claims. Nevertheless, the group is known to have abducted a Saudi diplomat, Abdallah al-Khalidi, who has remained a hostage of the extremist network since his kidnapping on 28 March in the former British colony of Aden.
The group’s suspected role in the abduction of the three foreigners on Friday is likely to be the source of strong speculation in coming weeks, especially if a criminal gang seeking a cash ransom has carried out the kidnappings.