Yemeni official says al-Qaida holding Western hostages

A senior Yemeni official said members of al-Qaida kidnapped a Finnish couple and an Austrian man Dec. 21.

SANAA, Yemen — A Finnish couple and an Austrian man abducted in Yemen last month are being held by members of al-Qaida after being sold to the militant group by tribesmen, a senior Yemeni official said Tuesday.

The three Westerners, who were studying Arabic in Yemen, were snatched Dec. 21 by gunmen in the capital Sanaa. An Interior Ministry official had said they were being held by tribesmen who were demanding a ransom.

"The tribesmen have sold the three abductees to elements from al-Qaida organization, and they were transferred to Bayda province," the official told Reuters.

"There are negotiations to pay a ransom and free them."

Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was quoted as saying Monday that the three Westerners were kidnapped by "terrorist groups," state news agency Saba reported. Hadi's comments were made during a meeting with the Finnish and Austrian ambassadors, Saba said.

The kidnapping of Westerners occurs sporadically in Yemen, mostly by tribesmen seeking bargaining clout in disputes with the authorities or by al-Qaida militants and their sympathizers.

Lawlessness in the Arabian Peninsula state has alarmed its neighbor, top world oil exporter Saudi Arabia, and the United States, which views Yemen as a frontline in its struggle against al-Qaida and its affiliates.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates in the country, is seen by U.S. officials as the most dangerous offshoot of the global militant network.

There have been dozens of killings of security and military officials by suspected al-Qaida gunmen in the past year, suggesting AQAP remains resilient despite increased U.S. drone strikes and a government military onslaught.

Writing by Rania El Gamal

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