By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with BosNewsLife’s Chief International Correspondent Stefan J. Bos
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (BosNewsLife)– Saudi Arabia’s security forces freed two German Christian girls kidnapped nearly a year ago in neighboring Yemen but the fate of their abducted parents, their infant brother and a British engineer remained unknown, officials and Christians said Tuesday, May 18.
Anna Hentschel, 3, and Lydia Hentschel, 5, (pictured in front) were reportedly rescued in an operation targeting the hideout of their abductors in Yemen. The raid, in which Saudi military helicopters took part, happened in the Shada district of the north-western Yemeni province of Saada province Monday afternoon, May 17, officials said.
The girls, who were part of a group of Christians kidnapped in Saada in mid-June last year, were transferred to Saudi authorities, the Saudi interior ministry confirmed Tuesday, May 18.
Saudi interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki told reporters that the two rescued girls are in Saudi Arabia, where they receive medical care. “Their condition is okay. But they are in the hospital to make sure they get any medical care they might need.”
The girls were expected to return to Germany on Wednesday, May 19. “We are relieved that the Saudi security forces have succeeded in freeing two of our five compatriots kidnapped in Yemen,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in a statement.
Saudi officials said the search continues for the other hostages. But family spokesman Reinhard Poetschke expressed concerns about the girl’s parents, Johannes and Sabine Hentschel, both 38, their youngest son Simon, 2, and a British ingeneer. “We have to assume that the boy is no longer alive,” he stressed in published remarks.
Bishop Martin Schindehütte, the foreign relations head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), reportedly said in a statement that he had feelings of “joy and hope, and grief and pain at the same time” over the fate of the family.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it also remained “very concerned” for the safety of the British hostage, who has only been identified as Anthony S.
Several other Christians of the kidnapped group already died. On June 12, 2009, the bodies of three of those abducted, German Bible students Rita Stumpp, 26, Anita Gruenwald, 24, and South Korean teacher, Eom Young Sun, 33, were found murdered.
Some Yemeni officials attributed the kidnappings and murders to forces linked to Al-Qaida group, with the help of Shiite rebels. The nine Christians were working at the Protestant-run Al Jumhuri hospital in Saada, Yemen.
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 have been held for religious reasons.
They were apparently abducted shortly after Johannes Hentschel talked to a man in a café about the Bible.
Al-Qaida has regrouped in Yemen behind the jihadist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. With the government facing an uprising by Shia Houthi rebels based in Saada province, and a growing separatist movement in the south, the country has provided an ideal location for al-Qaida to reopen the training camps destroyed by coalition forces in Afghanistan, analysts say.
Sanaa agreed an uneasy truce with the Houthis in February this year after a six-year conflict, but initially blamed the rebels for the kidnapping. The tribe has always denied any involvement.
The kidnappings have led to concerns among Christian aid workers about their safety in the country of roughly 23 million people.