Search widens for abducted French woman, Yemeni guide

25th February 2015, Comments 0 comments

Efforts intensified Wednesday to find a French woman and her Yemeni interpreter kidnapped in crisis-hit Yemen, with relatives reaching out to tribal chiefs and the Shiite militia that controls the capital.

Unidentified gunmen seized 30-year-old Isabelle Prime -- a consultant working on a World Bank-funded project -- and Sherine Makkaoui from a car in Sanaa Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris was making "every effort" to reach Prime's kidnappers, while her employer said "some contact" had been made with them.

The abduction has prompted calls by France for its nationals to avoid the impoverished Gulf nation following months of unrest.

"We contacted various tribal leaders in Sanaa and in the provinces of Jawf and Marib to ensure their cooperation for the release of the two women," Yassine Makkaoui, uncle of the Yemeni woman, told AFP.

"We have also contacted, for the same reason, the interior ministry and the Huthis," he added, referring to the Shiite militia.

Kidnappings are common in Yemen, where security has significantly worsened since the Huthis -- also known as Ansarullah -- swept into Sanaa unopposed in September.

After the Huthis' attempts to expand into southern and central Yemen were checked by fierce resistance from Al-Qaeda and from Sunni tribesmen, the militia moved to take power this month in what Yemen's Gulf neighbours branded a coup.

Makkaoui blamed the militia for the lack of security in the capital that allowed his niece and Prime to be abducted.

"The kidnapping took place in broad daylight in the centre of Sanaa where the Huthis are responsible for maintaining order," Makkaoui said.

"They control both the ministries of defence and interior, and we hold them responsible" for the women's fate, he added.

Prime and Makkaoui were seized after their car was stopped by men dressed as police officers, according to her employer, Ayala Consulting.

"There has been some contact" with the kidnappers, Francisco Ayala, president of the consulting firm based in Miami and Ecuador, told AFP.

Western nations including Britain, France and the United States closed their embassies in Yemen this month over security concerns and have also called on their citizens to leave.

On Wednesday, France's Fabius repeated an earlier request that "all nationals immediately leave Yemen".

Militants have abducted Westerners in Yemen in the past, and a US photojournalist and a South African teacher held by Al-Qaeda were killed during a failed US rescue mission in December.

- GCC chief in Aden -

Yemen, long on the front line in the fight against Al-Qaeda, has been wracked by violence since the ouster of longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 following a year-long popular uprising.

Saleh's successor Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi faced successive challenges, including waves of Al-Qaeda attacks on security forces and increasingly forceful calls for southern autonomy, or even secession.

The Huthis surrounded the president's residence in January, prompting Hadi and Prime Minister Khalid Bahah to tender their resignations.

Hadi reversed his decision Tuesday after escaping house arrest in Sanaa, staking a claim to lead the country out of crisis.

He resurfaced in Aden, capital of the formerly independent south Yemen, but Bahah remains under house arrest in Sanaa along with other ministers and officials.

On Wednesday, Gulf Cooperation Council secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani became the first foreign official to visit Hadi, meeting him at the republican palace in the southern port city.

Critics have accused predominantly Shiite Iran of backing the Huthis in a bid to destabilise Yemen, strategically located on oil-rich Saudi Arabia's southern flank and along key maritime shipping routes.

Speaking to lawmakers in Washington Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran's support for the Huthis "contributed" to the government's collapse.

© 2015 AFP

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