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'Kidnapping in Yemen Is Hospitality'

By Rabih Moghrabi—AFP
Yemeni tribesmen brandished weapons as they campaigned in a town 25 miles south of Sanaa for a tribal candidate in last month's legislative elections.

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 16, 1997; Page A27

MARIB, Yemen -- Haynes Mahoney has no particular fondness for the Yemeni tribesmen who abducted him at gunpoint, drove him six hours into the desert and held him captive for six nights as a bargaining chip in a land dispute with the central government.

On the other hand, the U.S. diplomat admits, it could have been worse.

After plucking him from a street in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, on Thanksgiving Day 1993, Mahoney's captors slaughtered goats in his honor, invited him to join in daily sessions of chewing khat, a mildly narcotic plant -- he declined -- and tried to keep his spirits up with cookies, tea and cigarettes. They also arranged for him to teach an English class in a local school.

"They were as polite as one can be when one is pointing a gun at someone," Mahoney, now in Washington, recalled in a telephone interview. "I was treated pretty much like a compulsory guest."

Mahoney's experience is all too common in Yemen, where the taking of foreign hostages has become so routine that a newspaper columnist recently suggested changing the name of the Ministry of Tourism to the Ministry of Kidnapping.

Since North and South Yemen merged in 1990, fractious tribes have forced their welcome on more than 100 foreigners, according to unofficial tallies by Western embassies and Yemeni journalists. Their guests have included diplomats, oil workers and tourists, including, in recent months, two elderly German couples and seven German motorcyclists. Both groups of Germans have been released.

As in most endeavors, Yemenis approach kidnapping in their own way. Unlike their counterparts in Lebanon, for example, kidnappers in Yemen rarely have harmed hostages, treating them as honored guests, permitting them to call relatives on satellite telephones and sometimes presenting them with ceremonial weapons as parting gifts. The government, in turn, rarely resorts to force when dealing with the culprits, who usually go unpunished.

"Kidnapping in Yemen is hospitality," said Abdullah Ahmar, speaker of the Yemeni parliament and the leader of Yemen's Hashid tribe, the country's largest. "Kidnapping is part of tourism; it's an adventure for the tourist, because the tourist will end up learning about the customs of the tribes, as well as their good hospitality."

That view is not shared by Western diplomats, who urge travelers to avoid some tribal areas and who tell cautionary tales of hostages not so well treated, such as a Briton subjected to a mock execution.

The government's patience, moreover, may be wearing thin. A rash of kidnappings before parliamentary elections on April 27 prompted accusations by Yemeni officials that neighboring Saudi Arabia is encouraging such activity as a means of undermining Yemen's fledgling democracy.

Similarly, the government is so fearful of the threat to tourism that it recently forbade foreigners from traveling to Marib -- a site of antiquities 75 miles east of the capital that was home to Yemen's legendary Queen of Sheba -- except in heavily armed convoys. Marib has become the favored kidnapping zone, with several persons seized here or, as in the case of the German couples, en route.

Yemen is a conservative Islamic country that blends elements of modern democracy with those of a feudal kingdom. Imam Ahmad, who died in 1962 and was Yemen's last prominent monarch, is said to have kept tribal leaders in line by making permanent "guests" of their sons, treating them to first-class educations even as he held their lives in his palm.

Although the tribal system is slowly unraveling, its leaders continue to reign supreme in many rural areas, commanding heavily armed militias -- some with armored vehicles -- and often requiring government officials to ask permission before entering their turf. According to Western diplomats, tribes typically resort to hostage-taking when they feel the need to boost their leverage with the government, often in negotiations over roads, schools and other development needs.

In the case of the German motorcyclists, who were seized while touring the Hadramut region in early March, a tribal sheik was seeking the government's intervention in a dispute with a local car dealer.

Mahoney, who was public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy, said he was released after an arcane land dispute between his captors and the government apparently was resolved to the kidnappers' satisfaction.

Mahoney's treatment -- his kidnappers stopped to buy him cookies while spiriting him out of the capital -- appears to be fairly typical. During 17 days in captivity earlier this year, for example, an American oil worker made three satellite-phone calls to his wife, went on escorted walking tours and was permitted daily visits by a Yemeni colleague, who kept him supplied with canned food and reading material, according to a Western oil executive in Sanaa.

"They'll slaughter sheep, give them khat and eventually release them," said the executive, who regularly travels through Yemen's kidnapping zones and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You don't worry about it."

Although the government is widely believed to have yielded to kidnappers' demands in many cases, its tolerance does have limits. To help secure the release of the American oil worker, for example, the government shut off power to the village in which he was being held and closed the local school and health clinic, according to the oil executive.

More recently, in the case of the two German couples kidnapped near Marib on March 27, the local military commander insulted the tribal sheik who had ordered the kidnapping, triggering a firefight that killed three Yemeni soldiers, according to a senior Yemeni official.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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