RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s security forces freed two young German girls held hostage for nearly a year in neighbouring Yemen, the Saudi interior ministry said on Tuesday, but there was no word on the fate of four remaining captives.
The girls, reported to be between 3 and 6 years old, were members of a German family of five who have been held by kidnappers the Yemeni government believes have links to al Qaeda. The pair were said to have been found in good condition.
“Saudi Arabia has retrieved two German children kidnapped in Yemen,” a Saudi interior ministry spokesman said. “The two children were in a border area between the two countries.”
Yemen, next door to the world’s top oil exporter, 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.
The United States and Saudi Arabia want Yemen to focus its efforts on fighting al Qaeda, fearing the global militant group will take advantage of Yemen’s instability to spread its operations to the neighbouring kingdom and beyond.
The kidnapped German family was among a group of nine foreigners taken hostage in northern Yemen in June, of which three women — two Germans and a South Korean — were later found dead.
The girls’ parents, toddler brother and a Briton remain missing, and there was no immediate word on their whereabouts.
Kidnappings of foreigners and Yemenis are common in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country, where hostages are used by disgruntled tribesmen to press demands on authorities.
Most hostages have been freed unharmed, but in 2000 a Norwegian diplomat was killed in crossfire and in 1998 four Westerners were killed during a botched army attempt to free them from Islamist militants who had seized 16 tourists.
The German foreign minister said the rescued girls were in relatively good health in Saudi Arabia and would return home on Wednesday, but he remained concerned about the remaining three German hostages.
“The two girls are now in safe hands with the Saudi authorities. Considering the circumstances they are doing well,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
“Our efforts are continuing undiminished to shed light on the whereabouts of the remaining hostages. Their fate is causing us great concern. We are hoping for a happy outcome for them too,” he added.
A British embassy spokeswoman in Yemen said Britain remained concerned for the safety of the one British hostage.
Yemeni tribal sources said the two girls were found during Saudi cross-border raids, backed by helicopters, on several villages on Monday in the northern region of Saada, near the Saudi border but gave no further details.
The operation to free the girls was carried out in coordination with Yemeni security forces, Mansour al-Turki, the Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman for security affairs, said in remarks carried on Al Arabiya television.
No group has claimed responsibility for their June abduction, which occurred in an area where Shi’ite rebels have been fighting government troops on and off since 2004. The rebels have denied carrying out the kidnapping.
That conflict, which drew in oil exporter Saudi Arabia in November, appears to have calmed following a cease-fire agreement but analysts say peace is unlikely to last without serious trust-building measures.
In south Yemen, negotiators were also working to free at least two Chinese oil workers kidnapped by suspected separatists on Sunday. A government official has said negotiations were continuing to free those hostages even as troops were being prepared to move into the area.
The kidnappers were demanding compensation for injuries suffered by a group member in clashes with troops during a separatist protest, a local official said.
Additional reporting by David Stamp in Berlin; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Ralph Boulton