updated 1/4/2006 8:25:35 PM ET 2006-01-05T01:25:35

The Yemeni government dispatched more helicopter-borne troops Wednesday to encircle a rugged mountain hideout and cut off water deliveries to the region where a renegade tribe is holding five Italian tourists hostage.

The Associated Press saw dozens of soldiers emerge from helicopters in the Jahan area of Marib province, near where security officials say the kidnappers are holed up with their captives. Other helicopters could be seen flying low through the mountains, apparently trying to spot the tribesmen.

The Italians were taken captive Sunday. Tribal elders, who had been negotiating with the kidnappers, said the hostages still were held somewhere in the vast Sirwah region of Marib province, about 75 miles northeast of San’a.

The government, showing its growing impatience with the standoff, stopped delivering water to communal tanks in the area Tuesday, a government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press.

Also, Prime Minister Abdul-Kader Bajammal declared the government would strike hard against the kidnappers, whom he called terrorists.

An Interior Ministry official told the AP the army was about to launch an attack against the kidnappers. But aside from increasing the number of soldiers Wednesday, there were no other signs of an imminent assault.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry said it had received assurances from Yemen that the government would not use force to free the hostages and would not take any action that might endanger their lives.

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini spoke with his Yemeni counterpart, Abubakr al-Qirbi, who assured Fini “the security of the abductees is the maximum priority of the Yemen government and the use of force is excluded,” a statement from Fini’s office said.

Italian envoy: Talks continuing
The Italian ambassador to Yemen, Mario Boffo, told the ANSA news agency that negotiations were continuing and “contacts with the Yemeni government are very intense.” He said Rome and San’a authorities were in “substantial agreement and above all there’s the common, very strong desire to end this in a positive way,”

Boffo told ANSA the hostages were in good condition.

Talks to free the five were deadlocked over the kidnappers’ refusal to drop their demand that fellow tribesmen be freed from prison in exchange.

Within hours of the Italians’ abduction Sunday, negotiators persuaded the kidnappers to free the three women. However, they refused to leave until their companions were released.

Meanwhile, 1,000 Yemenis protested in the streets of Marib demanding the government punish the kidnappers. Last week, a former German foreign ministry official and his family were freed after a four-day kidnapping ordeal in eastern Yemen.

Appeal from relatives
Relatives of the hostages appealed to the kidnappers Wednesday to release the captives and treat them well while they are being held.

“We direct an appeal to the tribal leaders, as people of honor who know the value of family and life,” a text of the appeal carried by ANSA said.

“We are sure that our loved ones are being treated well and considered as guests who came in peace to learn about your country. We hope that you understand our anxiety and our desire to see them again as soon as possible,” it said.

The message also thanked Italian and Yemeni authorities for their efforts.

Tribesmen of the poor country at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula often resort to kidnapping tourists to force concessions from the government. Hostages normally have been released unharmed, but several were killed in 2000 when Yemeni soldiers carried out a botched raid to free them.

Government control in regions outside major population centers in Yemen is tenuous.

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