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Norwegian U.N. official kidnapped in Yemen

By Hakim Almasmari, For CNN
January 15, 2012 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Yemeni protesters march in Dhamar during a rally on December 23.
Yemeni protesters march in Dhamar during a rally on December 23.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A Norwegian U.N. observer is being held for ransom in Yemen
  • NEW: His kidnappers want a jailed tribal leader freed, Yemeni officials say
  • His seizure follows suspected al Qaeda attacks on a town south of Sanaa

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Armed tribesmen snatched a Norwegian U.N. official from the streets of Yemen's capital Sunday, demanding the release of a jailed tribal leader, Norwegian and Yemeni officials said.

"We were informed by several official sources that a Norwegian citizen who works with the U.N. mission in Yemen was kidnapped early Sunday," Frode Andersen, a spokesman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, told CNN.

The victim is part of a team of U.N. election observers scheduled to oversee Yemen's presidential elections in February, a Yemeni Interior Ministry official told CNN on condition of anonymity.

Interior Ministry officials said the kidnapping took place just three miles south of the presidential palace, in one of the busiest and most secure neighborhoods in Yemen. Tribal sources said six men forced the Norwegian into a vehicle and drove him off to Mareb, about 170 km (105 miles) north of Sanaa.

The kidnappers are demanding the release of Ali Nasser Hareekdan, whom a local council official in Mareb province said was the prime suspect behind the killing of four Yemeni troops. The soldiers were responsible for securing a business route for oil tankers.

Numerous tribal leaders confirmed to CNN that the Yemeni government is currently negotiating the release of the Norwegian. According to the tribal sources, the Yemeni government sent three negotiators in an effort to have the Norwegian released.

Mareb province is well known for tribes who kidnap foreigners and use them as a bargaining chip to demand concessions from the governments. The hostages are rarely harmed.

"Yemen suffers very much from kidnappings, and most of the times, tribes from Mareb stand behind it," said one of the Interior Ministry officials, who was not authorized to talk to media.

The seizure took place a day after dozens of suspected al Qaeda militants attacked government posts and seized strategic areas southeast of Sanaa, local authorities and witnesses said.

A force of at least 30 entered Radda from a neighboring district Saturday night with little resistance from government forces, they said. They seized a mosque and three pivotal mountaintops, and created a checkpoint in the northern entrance of the town, according to local officials who did not want to be named because they are not authorized to talk to the media.

"These fighters had disputes with the government last month. They attacked government soldiers due to personal disputes, and now suddenly they are linked to al Qaeda," said Ali Kahwash, a local store owner.

Attempts to reach government officials were unsuccessful. But residents said the town is not linked to militants.

"Radda has no al-Qaeda loyalists. This does not make any sense at all," said Abdul Kareem al-Obahi, a businessman.

The town is about 110 miles southeast of the capital, Sanaa, and lacks essential infrastructure. It's one of the most heavily armed towns in the nation, and residents are encouraged to carry arms.

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