Swiss hostage freed in Yemen

A Swiss language teacher in Yemen is now free, after a year as a hostage of al-Qaeda. Silvia E. was taken from the port city of Hodeida in western Yemen, to the al-Qaeda stronghold of Shabwa, in the Southeast of the country. Qatari news agency QNA quoted Qatar’s assistant Foreign Minister saying he thanked a Qatari negotiating team for working silently and patiently over the last months to free the hostage. Swiss officials confirmed Silvia E. was in Doha, and safe. WRS’s Tony Ganzer has more.

Silvia E. was working at a language institute in Hodeida when she was kidnapped in mid-March 2012. It was another in a string of hostage situations of Swiss in dangerous regions, following Swiss travelers kidnapped by Pakistani Taliban. It prompted response from the government, wanting to clarify who holds responsibility and who pays if a citizen is kidnapped in a risky region.

It was unclear then that Silvia E. would be held for hundreds of days by al-Qaeda, before negotiators could secure her release. Nasser Arabyee is a Yemeni journalist in Sana’a. We have dubbed over the call to account for a poor connection.

ARABYEE: “Today I heard that a businessman from the South, who is living, who is based in Qatar, was the main mediator. And he came here to Yemen and negotiated with al-Qaeda, and he paid al-Qaeda about one million dollars—not less, not less than one million dollars because at the beginning, they wanted about five million dollars.“

The Swiss government has denied it paid a ransom, though there are a number of reports that someone paid. Initially, some reports said the kidnappers wanted also to secure the release of other prisoners and arrange a swap.

But it was unclear if the kidnapping was truly by al-Qaeda or by tribes, or perhaps overlapping groups. In May of last year, Silvia E. appeared in a proof-of-life video.

silviae-yemen

VIDEO: “I’m doing more or less good, I’m being treated very well, and really glad about that.  And I ask the Swiss embassy, the Swiss government to do what is necessary, what they can to get me free.”

Yemeni journalist Nasser Arabyee says these kidnappings are a way for groups to make money, but also to show the Yemeni officials and those in the West, that the groups are still capable of doing something.

ARABYEE: “These are to put pressure on the West, also. And on the Yemeni government—to tell them that we are still capable to do something.”

Question: She was held for a year, is that normal?

“This is the first time ever in the history of kidnappings in Yemen to have someone for a year. The first ever.”

Question: Is it usually shorter than that?

“Yes.”

Arabyee says al-Qaeda in Yemen is still holding three or four hostages including Austrian, and Finnish citizens. And while measures taken to financially limit al-Qaeda have put some pressure on the group, Arabyee says broad measures against al-Qaeda are not working to stop them.

Regardless of what authorities do, he says, al-Qaeda would do something like these kidnappings anyway.

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