SANAA, Yemen – Gunmen abducted two South African citizens Monday in Yemen's second largest city, Taiz, and police said a lawmaker was behind the kidnapping to pressure the government to hand over a disputed piece of land.
It was the latest twist in Yemen's bumpy road to democracy after more than three decades of autocratic rule that ended with longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster in an uprising last year. The country's new president is struggling to unify the country and its armed forces in the face of resistance from an active al-Qaida branch in Yemen and powerful tribes.
Abductions are not rare in Yemen, but Monday's kidnapping of foreigners was unusual in its circumstances and is the first in Taiz, near the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Police said that they received a call from assistants of lawmaker Abdel-Hamid el-Batra saying he organized the kidnapping outside the Taiz Plaza hotel because of a dispute with the government over a piece of land. The lawmaker pledged to hand over the foreigners in exchange for the land, police officials said. They spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
El-Batra belongs to the country's ruling party and has been a member of parliament for 10 years.
Unlike other parts of Yemen, Taiz has been relatively free of the type of violence other provinces have seen. However, in March 2012 al-Qaida claimed responsibility for killing an American teacher there, saying in a post on militant websites that he was proselytizing for Christianity.
Al-Qaida in Yemen is expanding, according to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and has used assassinations and abductions of foreigners as a way to challenge the central authority. The United States considers the Yemen branch to be al-Qaida's most active and dangerous.
In 2011, during the uprising against Saleh, al-Qaida overran entire cities and towns in the south of the country. Taiz, however, remained a hub for elite Yemeni activists and academics who camped out for months in protest until the longtime ruler stepped down.