by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 14 September, 2001
apparently routine abduction of a German diplomat in Yemen has
turned into one of the longest and oddest kidnappings in a
Rainer Berns, a 55-year-old
commercial attache at the German embassy was seized by gunmen in
the capital, Sana’a, on July 27 and was still being held as MEI
went to press.
Sana’a is usually considered
safe for foreigners but, as restrictions on travel make kidnapping
in wilder areas more difficult, the hostage-takers are clearly
becoming bolder. Mr Berns is the third person to be kidnapped in
the city in the last 18 months.
At first Mr Berns’ disappearance
looked like a normal tribal kidnapping of the kind that typically
lasts no more than a couple of weeks. His captors came from the
oil-producing province of Marib and belonged to the Jahm tribe
which has been been implicated in several recent kidnappings.
But then it emerged that the two
leading figures in the kidnap, Ahmed Ali Ali al-Zaidi and his
brother, Mohammed Ali Ali al-Zaidi, are supporters of Islamic
Jihad, the militant organisation formed by veterans of the Afghan
They have made none of the
familiar demands in tribal kidnappings - such as government jobs
and better local facilities - and although it is unclear precisely
what they want, their expectations seem unrealistically high.
Reports in the Yemeni press say
they have asked for a million-dollar ransom (now, apparently,
reduced to $100,000), for the release of suspects awaiting trial
in connection with the bombing of USS Cole last year and, more
recently, for the release of four men jailed for bombing the
Security forces have sealed off
the Zaidi brothers’ home district, Serwah in Marib, but
mediation has proved difficult because the brothers have not been
located. Some reports say they are using satellite phones to avoid
The Jahm tribe has now formally
outlawed the kidnappers and has provided the government with 18
hostages, including close relatives of the Zaidi brothers and
The intention of this was to step
up pressure to hand over the hostage but, in the view of some
observers, it is more likely to increase the kidnappers’
desperation and the risk of a tragic outcome.
The kidnappers now have nothing to
lose: their own tribe will not shelter them and they are likely to
be executed if caught. Latest reports suggest they have added a
new demand to their list: safe passage out of the country,
preferably to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, President Ali Abdullah
Salih has issued a decree dismissing 20 judges for corruption.
More than 100 others are to retire.
Yemeni sources said the move is
one of the administrative reforms recommended by the World Bank,
with the aim of creating an impartial judiciary which would make
Yemen more conducive to foreign investors.
There is some scepticism as to
whether the plan will succeed because the problem is not just one
of corrupt judges but of litigants who insist on bribing them.