by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 14 September, 2001
THE apparently routine abduction of a German diplomat in Yemen has turned into one of the longest and oddest kidnappings in a kidnap-prone country.
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 war.
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 British embassy.
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 detection.
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 several sheikhs.
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.