A German citizen has been abducted in Yemen, a foreign ministry official has said. The abduction comes as Shiite Houthi rebels claim to have captured two key towns, underscoring rising tensions in the country.
The German man in his 60s was captured by gunmen in the Yemeni capital, Saana, and is currently being held in a tribal region in the east of the country, it was reported Sunday. The abduction was believed to have occurred as early as Friday.
According to news agency Reuters, tribesmen have telephoned journalists to admit to seizing the unnamed hostage in order to press authorities to release two detained relatives, who they claim are being held without charge.
The kidnap was confirmed by a spokeswoman for Germany's Foreign Ministry.
"We are aware of the reports. The emergency task force has been alerted and, together with the embassy in Sanaa and the Yemeni authorities, it is urgently trying to resolve [the matter]," she said.
Yemen's Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, meanwhile, has contacted a German diplomat in Sanaa to discuss "ongoing efforts by the interior ministry and security forces to secure his safe release and bring the abductors to justice," state-run Saba news agency reported Sunday.
Kidnapping of foreigners for use as a bargaining tool has become extremely common in Yemen in recent years. Nearly all have been freed unharmed.
Al Qaeda has also admitted to seizing foreign citizens in Yemen; however, such cases are far less frequent.
Yemen has been gripped by political turmoil since mass protests against long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh broke out in 2011. Saleh has since stepped down.
It's also been plagued by attacks from one of the most active wings of al Qaeda that have left hundreds of people dead, as well as by sectarian fighting between the Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunnis.
On Sunday tribal officials claimed Houthi rebels had captured two key towns in the north of the country following weeks of fighting against the powerful Sunni Hashid tribe and allied Salafists, Yemeni media reported.
Territorial clashes over the towns of Houth and al-Khamri in Amran province have killed at least 150 militants in recent days.
The seizure marks a landmark victory for the Houthi separatists, who are seeking independence from the country's Sunni-aligned government. They are reported to be attempting to expand their reach towards the capital.
The two sides are also reported to be involved in a fierce exchange of shelling in the town of Naqil Ajmar, also in Amran province.
Clashes first broke out in October when Houthis accused Sunni Salafists in the north of summoning extremists both at home and abroad to fight against them.
Several attempts to arrange a government-backed ceasefire have failed.
ccp/tj (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)