SANAA (AFP) – Al-Qaeda gunmen have seized a Japanese engineer from his tribal kidnappers in Yemen, a tribal source who has been seeking to negotiate his release said on Saturday.
“The hostage was seized by elements of Al-Qaeda, who took him to an unknown destination in the Maarib region,” east of the capital, Sanaa, one of two tribal mediators told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The man, identified by Japanese media as 63-year-old Takeo Mashimo, was kidnapped on Sunday in Arhab, northeast of Sanaa, by tribesmen seeking to exchange him for one of their relatives being held by police.
He was seized by Al-Qaeda on Friday night, with a second mediator saying Al-Qaeda became involved after being approached by someone close to the detained tribesman who was opposed to the Japanese hostage’s release.
The 22-year-old man whose release was being sought by the tribesmen was imprisoned by US forces for a year in Iraq, according to a source in Yemen.
He was later arrested in Syria before being held in Sanaa, where he was sentenced to two years in prison without charges, the same source said.
Meanwhile, authorities have been rounding up members of the Al-Hanaq and Al-Gub tribes responsible for the initial kidnapping, the first source said.
Sheikh Abdul Jalil, a tribal leader, announced on Tuesday that the hostage had been freed but backtracked the following day, admitting he had been mistaken.
“The abductors had said they would free the hostage and had left to get him but when they came back they said they had changed their mind,” he said.
Jalil said they had agreed to release the hostage in exchange for their relative within 15 days.
“But at the last minute, they came back saying they want him liberated in three days,” the sheikh said.
The kidnappers were distrustful because a previous promise by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to release a detainee was not fulfilled, sources close to them said.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said on Wednesday that he was hopeful the hostage would be released soon.
He said there was no sign the engineer — employed by a Tokyo-based consultancy working on construction of an elementary school funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency — had been harmed in captivity.
Yemeni tribes habitually kidnap foreigners to put pressure on local authorities. More than 200 foreigners have been seized during the past 15 years, with most being freed unharmed.
But five Germans and a Briton who were taken captive in June in the north of the country are still missing and with no word on their fate.
They were among nine people seized in the northern Saada region, the stronghold of Shiite rebels at war with the Sanaa government. The three others in the group — two Germans and a South Korean — were killed.
Two Japanese women were released unharmed in May last year after briefly being taken hostage by Yemeni tribesmen.
Yemen is the ancestral land of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and has witnessed several attacks claimed by the group on foreign missions, tourist sites and oil installations.
Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks due to US pressure but its presence in Yemen threatens to turn the country into a dangerous base for training and plotting attacks, a top US counterterrorism official said in September.
The rugged nature of the terrain, which stretches over 529,000 square kilometres (204,248 square miles), makes Yemen a suitable environment for armed groups to hide.