SANAA (Reuters) - Armed Yemeni tribesmen kidnapped two U.S. tourists, a husband and wife, near the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Monday and were demanding the release of a jailed relative, Yemeni security officials said.
The couple’s Yemeni driver and a translator were also taken hostage, the officials said. The kidnappers were seeking government intervention to free a family member in jail over a land dispute that was before the courts, a tribal source said.
“Armed tribesmen ambushed a car carrying tourists and their Yemeni driver and took them to their area,” one security official said. Another official said the kidnapping was not thought to have any broader political motive.
A U.S. diplomat in Sanaa confirmed that two Americans had been kidnapped but had no further details.
A Yemeni government official said authorities had made contact with the kidnappers and a team of negotiators was headed to the mountainous area where the Americans were being held.
Yemen, bordering the world’s top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, surged to the forefront of Western security concerns after the Yemen-based regional arm of al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in December.
Kidnappings of foreigners and Yemenis are common in the Arabian peninsula country, where hostages are often used by disgruntled tribesmen to press demands on authorities.
Authorities have detained dozens of members of the tribe, a security official said. “The purpose is to mount pressure on the kidnappers, while negotiations go on,” he told Reuters.
Most hostages taken in Yemen have been freed unharmed, but in 2000 a Norwegian diplomat was killed in crossfire and in 1998 four Westerners were killed during an army attempt to free them.
The United States and Saudi Arabia want Yemen, trying to end a conflict with Shi’ite rebels in the north while separatist sentiment bubbles over in the south, to focus its efforts on fighting al Qaeda.
They fear the global militant group, whose regional arm has based itself in Yemen, will take advantage of the country’s instability to spread its operations to the kingdom and beyond.
A helicopter raid killed at least three people at what was believed to be an al Qaeda site in Maarib province, Al Jazeera television quoted local sources as saying late on Monday.
“It could not be confirmed that those killed were linked to al Qaeda,” Al Jazeera said.
The mountainous eastern province has seen air strikes in the past against al Qaeda’s resurgent regional wing in Yemen.
Security officials said the U.S. couple were seized in al-Haima, an impoverished coffee- and qat-growing region that was considered fairly safe.
The area is near the main road from Sanaa to Hudaida on the Red Sea coast, a common overnight destination for tourists who visit archaeological sites near the coast or the Haraz mountains, home to an Ismaili pilgrimage site.
Tourists traveling between Sanaa and Hudaida are required to inform police of their trip but do not typically need a security escort, as is necessary in some other areas of Yemen.
About a week ago, two young German girls held hostage for nearly a year in northern Yemen were rescued near the Saudi border in good health. Their parents, toddler brother and a Briton seized with them were still missing. The Yemeni government believes their kidnappers have links to al Qaeda.
Three other foreigners kidnapped alongside the family were found dead last year, and a relative of the girls has said their younger brother is probably dead.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Diana Abdallah