At least three kidnapped foreigners have been killed in a remote Yemeni province, and security officials in the capital on Monday reported another six were also dead. The slayings took place in a region where al-Qaida militants have a strong presence.
There was confusion among Yemeni officials over the toll. Local officials in the northern Saada province where the nine foreigners were kidnapped confirmed only that the bodies of three women in the group were found. The Saada provincial said the fate of the remaining six was unknown.
But Yemeni security officials in the capital, San'a, said the bodies of the other six were also found. Three of those reportedly were children. The contradictory reports could not immediately be reconciled.
Still, it was a rare slaying of foreign hostages, and could be a sign of brutal new tactics by al-Qaida in Yemen, the Middle East's poorest nation and one of its most unstable. Al-Qaida has been strengthening in Yemen, taking advantage of the government's weak control in a nation where tribes hold sway over much of the countryside.
The nine foreigners — seven Germans, a Briton and a South Korean — disappeared last week while on a picnic in the restive northern Saada region of Yemen. The Germans included a couple and their three children.
Shepherds found the remains of three women from the group on Monday morning in the mountainous northern Saada province near the town of el-Nashour, known as a hideout for al-Qaida militants, according to a statement from the local council in the area.
"The fate of the other six abducted people is still unknown," it said.
A security official in the capital, however, said the other six had been found dead. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
A tribal leader in the area blamed al-Qaida for the kidnapping of the foreigners on Friday and their slaying. He also spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason.
Al-Qaida's presence has strengthened over the past year. Al-Qaida militants, including fighters returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, have established sanctuaries among a number of Yemeni tribes, particularly ones in three provinces bordering Saudi Arabia.
In Berlin, the Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm the reports that the Germans had been killed. A spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said that a ministry crisis team and the German embassy in San'a were working together to try and get more details.
German family among missing
Yemeni authorities said the group included a German doctor, his wife and their three children, as well as a Briton and his South Korean wife and two other German nationals. They were all working in a hospital in Saada, the state news agency said. It did not give the ages of the children.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry identified their national by her family name, Eom, and said she is a 34-year-old aid worker in Yemen, but would not confirm if she was dead.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said she was part of a team of the Dutch-based medical aid agency Worldwide Service.
Seoul's Yonhap news agency quoted Eom's 63-year-old father as saying that the daughter "called me a few days ago and said she's doing fine and asked how I was. I just want to believe" she's still alive.
Chantel Mortimer, the press officer at the British Embassy, expressed concern and said that the embassy is seeking information about the rest of the hostages including the British one.
"We are very concerned that bodies were found. We are seeking further details," she said.
Hostage killings not commonThe killing of hostages is not common in Yemen, where tribesmen often kidnap foreigners to press the government on a range of demands, including a ransom, but usually release them unharmed.
In March, four South Korean tourists in Yemen died in an apparent suicide bombing blamed on al-Qaida.
Thousands of people have been killed in Saada, which lies near the border with Saudi Arabia, since a Shiite rebellion erupted there in June 2004. The rebels say the government is corrupt and too closely allied with the West. The rebels negotiated a fragile cease-fire with the government last year, but serious tension remains
Yemen, the ancestral homeland of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, had long been a haven for Islamic militants and was the scene of the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors.
Yemen is the Arab world's poorest nation — and one of its most unstable — making it fertile territory for al-Qaida to set up camp. The country is also in a strategic location, next door to some of the world's most important oil producing nations. It also lies just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, an even more tumultuous nation where the U.S. has said militants from the terror network have been increasing their activity.
Yemen, Saudi al-Qaida merge
Al-Qaida militants, including fighters returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, have established sanctuaries among a number of Yemeni tribes, particularly ones in three provinces bordering Saudi Arabia.
In January, militants announced the creation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a merger between the terror network's Yemeni and Saudi branches, led by Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, a Yemeni who was once a close aide to Osama bin Laden.
Over the past year, al-Qaida has been blamed for a string of attacks, including an armed assault in September on the U.S. Embassy in San'a, as well as two suicide bombings targeting South Korean visitors in March.
Earlier, the Yemeni government had accused a Shiite rebel group in Saada, led by Abdel Malak al-Hawthi, but the group issued a statement saying it has not been involved in any abductions of foreigners.