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Search For Foreign Hostages In Yemen Continues

In Yemen, the fate of six foreigners taken hostage by gunmen earlier this month remains unknown. The bodies of three others, all women, were found soon after the group was seized. All of them worked for a Christian organization, and most analysts say the crime is likely the work of al-Qaida.

The group worked for Worldwide Services, a Christian relief organization based in the Netherlands that for decades has been affiliated with a hospital in northwest Yemen. They disappeared June 12 while on a picnic in the remote northern province of Saada.

Two German women and a South Korean woman were found on June 15; they had been shot.

Yemeni security forces continue to search for the other six: a British man, a German man and his wife and three children. The government is offering $275,000 for any information leading to the kidnappers.

Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton University researcher on Yemen and terrorism, says the killings and kidnapping fit with the aims of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group led by Yemeni militant Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

"Nasir al-Wuhayshi and the rest of al-Qaida's leadership in Yemen has consistently had [the] refrain that all foreigners who are in Yemen are there to convert Muslims and to erode the Muslim faith within Arabia, which is the heartland of Islam. ... [That] is one of the reasons that the group has continually and consistently beat the drum of expelling the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula," Johnsen says.

Earlier this year, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed it killed four South Korean tourists, whom it accused of proselytizing. Johnsen says that even if al-Qaida is not directly responsible for the most recent attack, Wuhayshi might take credit for it anyway. This, Johnsen says, will help win new recruits.

"Whether it turns out to be something that was directed from al-Qaida or not, it will likely be something that Wuhayshi will praise, because it certainly fits the framework of how he's portraying this conflict," Johnsen says.

Kidnapping foreigners is nothing new in northwest Yemen. The region is a stronghold of the Shiite Houthi tribe that has been at war with the Yemeni government since 2004. The Houthis usually kidnap foreigners to bring attention to their claims of unfair treatment; these hostages are almost always released unharmed.

The Yemeni government initially blamed the recent attack on the Houthis, who have denied the claim. Yemeni terrorism analyst Mohammad Saif Haidar says if al-Qaida isn't responsible for the attack, then other Sunni extremists are.

"I am 100 percent sure that this was done by an Islamist group. And this group believes the same things that al-Qaida believes," Haidar says.

He says Islamist extremists are working to destabilize the Yemeni government, which already is battling the Houthis in the north, as well as a secular movement in the south that is agitating to secede.

Arab and Western terrorism experts say al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — a branch made up of Yemeni and Saudi militants — hopes to take advantage of the growing instability. Recently, two Saudis — one operative and one alleged financier — were taken into custody in Yemen.

American officials say members of the larger al-Qaida network are looking to Yemen as a safe haven and are fleeing to Yemen from the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Yemeni analyst Murad Zafir, of the National Institute for Democracy, says he sees little evidence of that.

"I don't think Yemen is a last resort. I think Yemen is a battleground," he says.

That battleground likely will involve more attacks — inside Yemen and possibly its neighbor, Saudi Arabia — and soon, Zafir says.

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