Hostage-Taking in Yemen

The Importance of Not Playing Down the Risks

Former German state secretary Jürgen Chrobog and his family have been kidnapped in East Yemen. Kidnapping of foreign citizens is not a rare occurrence in Yemen, where clan traditions play a major role in society. Peter Philipp reports

Former German state secretary Jürgen Chrobog and his family have been kidnapped in East Yemen. Their captors obviously want to obtain the release of one or more prisoners in Yemen. The kidnapping of foreign citizens is not a rare occurrence in Yemen, where clan traditions play a major role in society. Peter Philipp reports

Former German state secretary Jürgen Chrobog (photo: AP)
Jürgen Chrobog was a state secretary in the Foreign Ministry of the last German government. Among other things, he was himself involved in the negotiations that secured the release of 14 kidnapped holiday makers in the Sahara in 2003

​​There is a long tradition of kidnapping foreign citizens in Yemen. Over the course of the past 15 years, over 200 foreigners - most of whom were tourists - have been kidnapped and temporarily detained. Only last week, two Austrians were taken hostage in order to force the release of several prisoners. They were released on Christmas Eve.

It is likely that the motive for the most recent hostage-taking, that of former German state secretary Jürgen Chrobog and his family, is the same. In this case too, it is supposed that the family were kidnapped to force the release of one of more prisoners.

Chrobog was a state secretary in the Foreign Ministry of the last German government. Among other things, the diplomat was himself involved in the negotiations that secured the release of 14 kidnapped holiday makers in the Sahara in 2003. Now he himself is a hostage.

Nerve-wracking negotiations

Kidnappings in Yemen are usually perpetrated by a variety of regional clans who use the hostages to exert pressure on the central government. It is often the case that the details become known very soon after the hostage's disappearance (including the location at which they are being held), but it still takes days and even weeks to secure their release.

The negotiations between government representatives and clans that lead to a successful release can sometimes be complicated. The former German ambassador to Yemen, Countess Helga Strachwitz, has been involved in negotiations for the release of German hostages in the past.

Even after she had received a new ambassadorial posting, Strachwitz, an experienced diplomat and Yemen expert, was sent back to Yemen to take part in negotiations for the release of a German diplomat. The then commercial attaché Reiner Berns was released after two months of nerve-wracking negotiations in September 2001.

While Strachwitz, who is now Germany's ambassador to Ethiopia, never played down the seriousness of hostage-taking during her time in Yemen, she always stressed that it should not be compared with hostage-taking anywhere else in the world. Hostage-taking in Yemen usually ends without any loss of life.

The demands of the hostage-takers

Once, in late 1998, three British citizens and an Australian were killed when security forces attempted to bring about their release. In order to avoid such bloody conclusions to hostage cases, the authorities generally agree to the hostage-takers demands: the required road or school is built or members of the clan are released from prison.

Sometimes, the hostage-takers are happy to take the off-road vehicle belonging to their hostages. This is a tactic with a long tradition in Yemen: the clans used to demand payment of a toll for the use of certain routes and have always used temporary hostage-taking as a means of forcing concessions from other clans or governments.

Because, however, Yemen is the native home of the Bin Laden clan (from where they moved to Saudi Arabia) and because members and supporters of al-Qaida have moved back to Yemen, kidnappings in this country cannot be underestimated.

There is always the very real risk that Islamic extremists could become active in Yemen, as is already the case in Saudi Arabia. If this happens, it is likely that kidnappings in Yemen will not necessarily end as happily as they have done to date.

This is why the numbers of tourists visiting Yemen has dropped considerably over the past few years. Germany's Foreign Ministry advises visitors only to travel to Yemen with reputable holiday companies and never to organise trips independently. It goes without saying that even this advice cannot always protect against kidnapping.

Peter Philipp

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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