Tunisian hostage case in Yemen kept under radar

Sunday 15/05/2016
Nourane Houas

BEIRUT - It was a low-profile hostage case being dealt with in utter confidentiality until online footage was released by the kidnappers of Tunisian hu­manitarian worker Nourane Houas in which the employee of the In­ternational Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yemen appealed to her employer and governments to help free her.
The ICRC, which has been oper­ating in Yemen for more than 50 years, has been tight-lipped since Houas was abducted December 1st as she was leaving her home for work in Sana’a. A Yemeni man who had kidnapped with her was later released.
After confirming that the woman clad in a black veil who appeared in the May 6th footage was Houas, the ICRC requested the media re­frain from sharing the video “out of respect and consideration for Nourane’s family and loved ones”.
“We would like to refrain from answering to any question in re­lation to the video, the potential identity of abductors or the mes­sages put forward. The ICRC is do­ing its best to secure her release through its contact network, but we cannot discuss any details pub­licly or enter into speculations,” ICRC spokeswoman in Sana’a Rima Kamal, said.
In the 39-second video, shared on Yemeni news sites, Houas pleads in French for Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and French President François Hollande to as­sist her.
Kamal stressed that since Houas’s abduction the ICRC has mobilised all channels possible to secure her release.
“Over the past five months, we have certainly had some leads,” Ka­mal had said earlier. “We are, how­ever, unable to share or elaborate on these leads publicly due to the sensitivity of any abduction case. What matters now is Nourane’s safe return to her family as soon as possible.”
It is usual in hostage-taking cases to keep efforts for securing the release of victims under the radar, whether the efforts are un­dertaken by governments or non-governmental organisations, out of concern that publicity would jeopardise chances of liberation. The media are also often used or manipulated by kidnappers to put pressure on the negotiations and push for their demands to be met.
Sana’a has been controlled for the past year-and-a-half by the Houthi rebel militia, an Iran-allied group. The capture of Sana’a by the Houthis provoked armed in­tervention by a Saudi-led Arab al­liance that has been waging an air campaign against the Houthis and allied soldiers loyal to former presi­dent Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Kidnappings of foreigners in Yemen are far from new but in the present state of anarchy and law­lessness in a country where the majority of the people, not fighters only, are armed, kidnappings, es­pecially for ransom, have been on the rise.
Since 2011, kidnapping a foreign­er has become one of the most lu­crative cash cows. Armed criminals kidnap foreigners and often sell them to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. No longer motivated by lingering issues with the govern­ment, kidnappers have money in mind.
Tunisian journalist and expert on armed groups Nizar Makni ar­gues that Houas is likely being held hostage by an armed gang looking for ransom money, rather than a jihadist group with an ideological purpose.
“The Tunisian hostage has re­peatedly said the word ‘legitimate’ Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Man­sour Hadi in her plea as she read from the paper she was holding. This carries a clear message from the kidnappers that they are loyal­ist to the exiled president,” Makni was quoted as saying in comments published on Tunisian website Ha­kaekonline.
He said, in addition to being a holder of dual Tunisian-French na­tionality, Houas sought the assis­tance of Paris because it has much experience in negotiating the re­lease of French hostages held by armed militias.
Operating in conflict zones is becoming more dangerous for hu­manitarian workers. Respect for humanitarian workers seems to have declined as well as the com­mitment to ensure their safety. The increasing number of attacks against humanitarian workers seems testimony to that.
The ICRC has suffered several se­curity incidents in Yemen over the past year. In addition to Houas’s abduction, the organisation had its offices in Aden attacked and two of its local staff members killed. Houas was active in “Protection”, the organisation’s department re­sponsible for visiting prisoners and detainees to monitor living con­ditions and ensure that they are treated with humanity and dignity.
The conflict in Yemen has forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes and claimed more than 6,000 lives since March 2015. More than 30,000 people, includ­ing women and children, have been wounded. With the country already suffering from decades of conflict and under-development, its communities are ill-equipped to handle the magnitude of needs that necessitate the presence and intervention of humanitarian or­ganisations such as the ICRC.