By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
SAN’A,YEMEN (BosNewsLife)– Intense fighting between government forces and Shi’ite Muslim rebels in northern Yemen is hampering international efforts to locate a kidnapped German Christian family and a British engineer, BosNewsLife established Saturday, September 5.
Christian aid worker Johannes Hentschel, his wife Sabine and their young children Lydia, Anna, Simon, and a married British engineer, who has only been identified as Anthony S, were among nine foreigners abducted in mid-June during an outing in northern Saada province, according to police investigators and other officials.
There has been no word about their whereabouts, however the bodies of German nurses in training, Rita Stumpp, 26, and Anita Gruenwald, 24, and a 33-year-old South Korean woman, Eom Young-sun, were found by child shepherds, in June.
The search for the other foreigners continues, amid government claims that Houthi rebels are involved in the abductions. The Houthi rebels, who are adherents of the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam — a strongly tribal minority in mostly Sunni Muslim Yemen — oppose Yemen’s close ties with the United States and say they are defending their villages against government oppression.
They have denied involvement in the kidnappings of the foreigners. Authorities have reportedly made information about the six among their conditions for a ceasefire with Houthi rebels, and Yemen’s army has stepped up air strikes against suspected rebel hide-outs in the troubled Saada province.
Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh has said that the government “would face this sedition in a decisive way” if rebels rejected peace. “The armed forces are continuing to tighten their grip on the subversive elements in a number of areas,” another official source was quoted as saying in the Ministry of Defense’s online newspaper.
It was unclear what impact the fighting, which intensified last week, would have on the kidnapped foreigners. The government is under international pressure to help in efforts to find them, amid mounting concerns about the plight of Christians in the country.
The Bishop of the Lutheran Church in the German state of Saxony, Jochen Bohl, has asked believers to pray for the missing German Christians and British engineer.
In the last 15 years at least 200 foreigners are known to have been kidnapped in Yemen. In most cases, they were set free after ransom payments, but observers have suggested that the Christians are held for religious reasons.
They were apparently abducted shortly after Johannes Hentschel talked to a man in a café about the Bible. In addition, “Muslims are observing Ramadan, a month of fasting during daylight hours. It is likely that the missing adults, assuming they are alive, will be obliged to observe the fast,” said Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC).
The kidnapped Christians were involved in the Al Jumhuri hospital in Saada, which has since been closed for security reasons, news reports said. The Netherlands-based Christian-leaning humanitarian agency Worldwide Services, has reportedly withdrawn all staff members from the hospital.
MEC said it was concerned that other Christian aid workers, including South Korean missionaries, would be forced to leave the country.
“In June we reported that the South Korean government might restrict their nationals from travelling to Yemen, a move which would have an impact on several Christian ministries,” MEC told BosNewsLife. “Recent reports suggest that the South Korean government is currently considering restricting travel to Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries” bacause of security concerns.