Sana’a: Germany Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on a surprise visit to Sana’a on Monday that Yemeni authorities have assured him they know the whereabouts of five Germans and a Briton held hostage since June.
Westerwelle told reporters that President Ali Abdullah Saleh had told him during late morning talks that "he had information a little than two hours ago" that they know where the German hostages are being held.
The family of five Germans and a Briton were abducted in northern Yemen last June along with two German Bible students and a South Korean who were shot dead soon afterwards.
Westerwelle said the German embassy was doing everything it could to bring the "intolerable situation" of the German hostages in Yemen "to a good end."
Last week, a senior Yemeni official said the government had information that the five Germans and the Briton were still alive and that there appeared to be an al Qaeda link to the abduction.
"The three possible places they could be in are (the provinces of) Maarib, Al-Jouf and Saada," the deputy prime minister for defence and security affairs, Rashad al-Aleemi, told a news conference.
"Available information confirm that there is coordination between the (northern Shiite rebel) Huthis and the al Qaeda in this matter," he said.
Westerwelle`s visit, the first by a senior Western diplomat since the botched Christmas Day attempt to bomb a US airliner, came as pressure mounted on Yemen to rein in al Qaeda militants believed to be behind the attempt.
His arrival in the Yemeni capital follows visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates where he held talks on regional issues including the situation in Yemen.
"Based on his talks in the Gulf, Westerwelle made the quick decision to go to Yemen to get the feeling of the situation on the ground," a member of his delegation said.
The Foreign Minister is concerned that further destabilisation in Yemen could have a negative impact on the entire region and beyond, the delegate said.
Westerwelle, who informed key European partners and Washington in advance of his visit, was expected to deliver a message that European and Arab partners seek a stable government in Sana’a.
Impoverished Yemen`s long-standing scourge of extremism was highlighted after senior Yemeni officials said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who allegedly tried to blow up the US-bound jet, had spent time in the country with al Qaeda extremists.
London and Washington have announced plans to fund counter-extremism police in the country, but US President Barack Obama said in comments published on Sunday that he has "no intention" of sending American troops to Yemen.
Recent strikes on al Qaeda positions in Yemen, including cruise missile attacks, were however reportedly led by the United States, which has vowed to boost its economic and military aid to Sana’a.
Yemen has been hostile to any suggestion of US military intervention, but analysts fear Osama bin Laden`s ancestral homeland cannot tackle the militants on its own.
Saleh said on Sunday he is open to dialogue with al Qaeda militants, indicating he may show some leniency to the jihadists, whom analysts say he does not view as the main threat to his shrinking power base.
With a Shiite rebellion in the north and a movement for autonomy in the south, the central government asserts little control over the country, which is also reeling from an economic crisis aggravated by dwindling oil reserves and a water shortage.
Germany is by far the largest European contributor of development aid to Yemen, with some 79 million euros (114 million dollars) earmarked for the impoverished country for 2010-2011.
The German official said Westerwelle in his talks with Yemeni authorities would also "press for good governance" and raise the issue of widespread corruption in Yemen, while also calling for a national dialogue to resolve internal strife and restore stability.
Sana’a has turned to the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the international community for help, but aid has been slow in coming.