Yemeni soldiers loyal to the Huthi Shiite militia, seen near the presidential palace on February 25, 2015 in the capital Sanaa
Yemeni soldiers loyal to the Huthi Shiite militia, seen near the presidential palace on February 25, 2015 in the capital Sanaa © Mohammed Huwais - AFP
Yemeni soldiers loyal to the Huthi Shiite militia, seen near the presidential palace on February 25, 2015 in the capital Sanaa
Jamal al-Jabiri, AFP
Last updated: February 26, 2015

Search widens for abducted French woman, Yemeni guide

Efforts intensified Wednesday to find a French woman and her Yemeni interpreter kidnapped in crisis-hit Yemen, with relatives reaching out to tribal chiefs and the Shiite militia in control of the capital.

On the political front, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reiterated its support for Yemen's beleaguered president, as militiamen opened fire to disperse thousands of his backers demonstrating in Sanaa.

Unidentified gunmen seized 30-year-old Isabelle Prime -- a consultant working on a World Bank-funded project -- and Sherine Makkaoui from a car in the capital on Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris was making "every effort" to reach Prime's kidnappers, while the abducted Yemeni's family said contacts have been made with tribal chiefs and the Shiite militia known as Huthis.

"We contacted various tribal leaders in Sanaa and in the provinces of Jawf and Marib to ensure their cooperation for the release of the two women," Yassine Makkaoui, uncle of the Yemeni woman, told AFP.

"We have also contacted, for the same reason, the interior ministry and the Huthis."

The employer of the two women, Francisco Ayala, president of Ayala Consulting, said their wherebouts, the identity of the kidnappers and their demands remained unknown.

The interior ministry, leading the search with help from Ayala's local security advisers, "are telling us that they are working on the case... but we don't know anything concrete as yet," he told AFP from Ecuador.

Kidnappings are common in Yemen, where security has significantly worsened since the Huthis swept into Sanaa unopposed in September.

After the Huthis' attempts to expand into southern and central Yemen were checked by fierce resistance from Al-Qaeda and from Sunni tribesmen, the militia moved to take power this month in what Yemen's Gulf neighbours branded a coup.

Prime and Makkaoui were seized after their car was stopped by men dressed as police, their employer said.

Western nations including Britain, France and the United States closed their embassies in Yemen this month over security concerns and have urged their citizens to leave.

Tribesmen with grievances against the authorities have in the past 15 years abducted dozens of foreigners, before releasing them unharmed.

But a US photojournalist and a South African teacher held by Al-Qaeda were killed during a failed American rescue mission in December.

Yemen, long on the front line in the fight against Al-Qaeda, has been wracked by violence since the ouster of longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 following a year-long popular uprising.

Saleh's successor Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi faced successive challenges, including waves of Al-Qaeda attacks and increasingly forceful calls for southern autonomy, or even secession.

The Huthis surrounded the president's residence in January, prompting Hadi and Prime Minister Khalid Bahah to tender their resignations.

Hadi reversed his decision Tuesday after escaping house arrest in Sanaa, staking a claim to lead the country out of crisis.

He resurfaced in Aden, capital of the formerly independent south, but Bahah remains under house arrest in Sanaa along with other ministers.

- Gulf stresses Hadi support -

On Wednesday, GCC chief Abdullatif al-Zayani became the first foreign official to visit Hadi, meeting him at the republican palace in the southern port city.

Zayani "stressed the support" of the GCC for Hadi, in a statement from the bloc that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In Sanaa, thousands of demonstrators chanted: "No to the Huthis... We stand by Hadi to face those who conspire against our country".

Protest organisers said militiamen fired into the air as others attacked demonstrators, wounding five of them and seizing 15.

Pro-Hadi rallies were also staged in the cities of Taez, Hudaida and Ibb.

Iran, meanwhile, denied any role in the Huthi power grab, an accusation levelled by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Kerry's statement was "nothing but a blame game".

"Iran's fundamental approach is that nations should determine their fate with their own hands," she said.

In New York, a panel of experts reported to the UN Security Council that ex-president Saleh is believed to have amassed $32-60 billion through corruption during his 33 years in power.

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