AL-MUKALLA: Talks aimed at securing the release of five UN workers abducted by Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen have reached a deadlock after the Yemeni government refused to take part in a prisoner swap.
A local security official told Arab News on Thursday that tribal negotiators had failed to convince terror group leaders to free the staff who were taken hostage while travelling in the southern province of Abyan.
The UN employees’ abductors had demanded a release swap for militant prisoners being held by the Yemeni government in Aden, along with a ransom of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“They want us to release terrorist elements. They are trying to blackmail the state,” the official, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
The five UN workers — four Yemenis and a foreigner who were based in Aden — were seized in Abyan’s Moudia district while heading back to their office on Feb. 11. Their Al-Qaeda captors later demanded, through local tribal figures, that local authorities swap them with militant prisoners, and also demanded a ransom of SR1 million.
On Thursday, the security official said that the militants also demanded that the government pay money for relatives of dead militants and militant prisoners, threatening to kill the hostages if the security and army services tried to use force to release them.
“They told the negotiators that they would kill the (abducted) Yemenis and the Bulgarian if the security forces stormed the mountains (of Moudia) to release the hostages,” the official added.
Yemen’s branch of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been greatly weakened during the past six years after Yemeni forces, backed by the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen, expelled the terror group from its key strongholds, forcing its fighters to flee into the mountains.
Hundreds of militants have been killed, wounded, or captured during consecutive military operations by Yemeni forces, supported by air cover from the coalition in Aden, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramout.
Separately, heavy fighting between government troops and the Iran-backed Houthis intensified on Thursday in the provinces of Hajjah and Marib as the coalition carried out numerous airstrikes, hitting Houthi gatherings and military equipment.
Local officials and media reports said that fighting had spread in the northern province of Hajjah as government troops mounted new attacks on the Houthis in the district of Abes, west of Hajjah, and other forces fought off counterattacks by the Houthis in the district of Haradh.
Fighting also broke out in flashpoint sites south of the central province of Marib where government forces attacked the Houthis in a bid to expel them from strategic locations close to the city of Marib.
The clashes came as the coalition on Thursday said it had destroyed 11 Houthi military vehicles in 15 air raids in Hajjah and Marib.