Double Dealing in Yemen Why Did Kidnappers Release Two German Girls?

After 11 months in captivity, two young German girls who were being held hostage in Yemen have been released. Their release had been negotiated without the involvement of the German government. The circumstances are hazy, and the fate of the rest of the family, who disappeared last July, is still unknown.

Two German children held hostage in Yemen were released earlier this week.

Two German children held hostage in Yemen were released earlier this week.


When Manuela-Anett T. met her cousins Lydia, 6, and Anna, 4, in a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, earlier this week, it was as if the girls they knew had been swapped for others. The girls shyly said that their names were now Fatima and Sarah. And when questioned in German, they answered in Arabic.

For 11 months, both children, who are from the eastern German state of Saxony, had been in the hands of Yemeni kidnappers in the hard-fought northern part of the country. On Monday morning, the kidnapping ended peacefully on the Yemeni border. A special unit of the Saudi Arabian intelligence service took custody of the two girls, who were dressed in festive Yemen folk clothing, and drove them to the capital city Riyadh. Doctors reported that both girls were healthy. They were diagnosed with mild dehydration, but they were both of normal weight.

The bigger question is what kind of psychological trauma they have suffered.

Both girls appear to have been taken away from their parents shortly after the kidnapping last year. It is probable that the girls, who come from a deeply religious Christian family, were placed with a Yemeni tribe and that they were treated well. After being freed, they reportedly played with cooking pots as if they were used to handling them.

Parents and Brother Still Missing

There has been no sign of Johannes and Sabine H., their parents, since the Friday afternoon in June 2009 when the family was kidnapped by armed hostage-takers in a wadi near the city of Sa'dah.

The attack on the German family, who moved to Yemen years ago as relief workers and had been working for a hospital, is one of the most mysterious kidnapping cases to emerge in recent years. A British woman, two nurses from Germany and a South Korean doctor's assistant were also kidnapped. Only days later, herdsmen found the two woman from Wolfsburg, Germany, and the South Korean in a riverbed; they had been executed with gunshots to the head.

After weeks without progress, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, established indirect contact with the kidnappers last August. A Yemeni sheikh, who claimed he had contacts to al-Qaida and access to the hostages, offered to mediate. And the sheikh did in fact deliver a CD with video footage of the two girls in August, looking exhausted but healthy.

A few weeks later, in September, the Yemeni government provided a second CD with video that also included images of the third child, Simon. They show the emaciated infant, who was only 11 months old at the time of his kidnapping, dehydrated and exhausted, with skin so thin and transparent it looked like parchment. The German Federal Criminal Police Office analyzed the video and said that Simon was at risk of dying if he wasn't provided with medical aid and water within two weeks. But all efforts to get medicines delivered to the child failed. The sheikh who had delivered the first CD also lost touch with his contact.

Merkel Asked for Personal Briefings

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel asked for a personal briefing on the case. Jürgen Chrobog, a former senior official at the German Foreign Ministry, flew twice to the Yemeni capital Sana'a. Chrobog and his family were kidnapped in east Yemen in December 2005 and later released, and he probably knows the country better than any other German official.

He brought with him a personal letter from Angela Merkel to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In it, the chancellor asked for help. It seemed to have an effect: Things appeared to be moving in January, when Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited Saleh at the Presidential Palace in Sana'a.

During his talks with Westerwelle, Saleh provided information that was supposedly brand new. Apparently an arms dealer had kidnapped the Germans and later passed them on to al-Qaida. The ransom demand supposedly amounted to $2 million ($1.59 million), plus the release of a number of prisoners. Saleh said he was "very optimistic," and that it looked like it was only a matter of days before the hostages were freed.

Several weeks later, the Yemenis then reported that the hostages were being held on three farms. The army searched one property -- without success.

By early May, the German government had mounting evidence that secret negotiations were being held in the background. Several Yemeni men demanded a ransom of $6 million for the release of all the hostages. They later reduced the amount to $1 million. Their contact was a man who was apparently operating from Saudi Arabian territory.

A Complicated Situation Made Trickier

The German government can only speculate as to the identity of the mysterious man, and whether he had anything to do with the release of the girls. Just days before the children were freed, the Germans had asked their Saudi counterparts whether there had been any contact with the kidnappers. They were apparently told that there had been none.

It is likely that the Saudis increased the pressure on the Yemeni tribes to come up with a solution before Merkel's trip to the Gulf region next week, where she will visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. The Saudis are keeping the details of the deal secret.

The fact that one of the parties involved may be double-dealing makes the already complicated situation even trickier. The Yemenis who had been holding the two girls had said that Simon, the infant, was dead, the Saudis reported. The corpse, however, still needed to be recovered, they added.

The fate of the children's parents, John and Sabine H., is still completely unclear. Sources in Berlin say that, given the fact that the family had been separated at such an early stage, the release of the children says "absolutely nothing about the parents' situation."


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