SANAA (Reuters) - Armed secessionists have captured two soldiers in south Yemen and demanded the release of two southern leaders imprisoned by the government, state and opposition media reported on Saturday.
The group set the government a 48-hour deadline to release the leaders or else it “would not be responsible” for the soldiers’ lives, the Aden News Agency reported.
The soldiers had been on leave in their hometown of Taizz and were returning to their barracks when they were seized in the southern province of Lahej on Saturday, the defense ministry said.
Separately, the U.S. embassy in Sanaa told its staff to avoid one of the capital’s hotels after a suspected al Qaeda suicide bomber tried to kill the British ambassador last week.
“Due to increased security concerns regarding specific areas frequented by Western tourists and residents, all U.S. Embassy personnel have been advised to avoid the Movenpick Hotel in Sanaa until further notice,” an embassy statement said.
Al Qaeda’s regional wing is based in Yemen and has carried out a number of attacks on international targets, including the bombing in 2000 of the USS Cole in Aden harbor, which killed 17 sailors.
Last August, it sent a suicide bomber posing as a repentant militant to Saudi Arabia, where he narrowly failed to kill the kingdom’s anti-terrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
British Ambassador Tim Torlot was on his way to the embassy on Monday morning when a 22-year-old suicide bomber attacked his convoy, killing only himself but wounding three people.
The envoy was unhurt but the attempt on his life showed al Qaeda is still capable of carrying out high-impact attacks.
Yemen, located by a major shipping lane, is also facing rising unrest in its south, where a separatist movement objects to the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A government crackdown has led to deaths on both sides and the conflict has become increasingly violent in recent months.
Sanaa on Saturday issued a list of 50 “secessionist elements” sought by the state. Number two on the list, Tahir Tamah, is the man the government said was leading the group behind the kidnapping of the two soldiers.
North and south Yemen formally united in 1990 but many in the south, where most of impoverished Yemen’s oil facilities are located, complain northerners exploit the south’s resources and discriminate against southern citizens.
Yemen’s south is home to a number of secessionist factions, most of which call for a peaceful resolution to their standoff with Sanaa.
In February, Sanaa concluded a truce deal with northern Shi’ite rebels, who complain of discrimination by the government, bringing an end to the latest round of fighting in a conflict that has been waged since 2004.
Reporting by Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa and Mohamed Mokhashef in Aden, writing by Raissa Kasolowsky in Dubai