French woman kidnapped in Yemen

Thousands of armed Yemeni tribal members gather in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa on February 23, 2015 as they prepare to mobilize in case of any attacks on their province by armed militia supporting the Shiite Huthi movement. (AFP)

A French woman working in Yemen was kidnapped Tuesday as President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi struggled to reassert his authority in the crisis-hit Arabian Peninsula nation.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran had contributed to the collapse of the government's authority in Yemen, where a militia seized the capital in September.

The woman, a development worker on a project funded by the World Bank, was abducted Tuesday morning, France's foreign ministry said, urging all French citizens "to leave the country as fast as possible".

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

A Yemeni security source said gunmen seized 30-year-old Isabelle Prime and her local guide from a taxi in downtown Sanaa. She worked for Ayala Consulting on a project funded by the World Bank to assist the Yemeni government's social welfare programme.

"She was about to leave in the next few days," employer Francisco Ayala later told AFP in a telephone interview.

Prime, her Yemeni colleague and their driver were riding down the main street in Sanaa en route to work when their car was stopped by men dressed as police officers, Ayala said.

"It seemed they moved around the city and eventually the driver was released after a few hours," he said.

"He was the one who gave us the alert and provided the information to the authorities."

The kidnappers wanted to free Prime's local female colleague as well, but it is understood she refused to leave Prime alone with her captors, Ayala said.

President Francois Hollande called for her to be released "as soon as possible".

The World Bank said it was "deeply concerned" about their fate.

"There has been some contact" with the kidnappers, said Ayala, who had no details as the Yemeni interior ministry continues to deal with the case.

Yemen has descended into chaos since the militia, known as Huthis, swept into Sanaa last year.

The Huthis overran Sanaa and installed a "presidential council" this month after Hadi and Prime Minister Khalid Bahah tendered their resignations.

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

He made his surprise escape Saturday and resurfaced in Aden, capital of the formerly independent south Yemen. There he has attempted to resume his duties and branded all measures adopted by the Huthis "null and illegitimate".

An aide to Hadi said the 69-year-old had withdrawn his resignation in a letter to parliament, which has never met to formally consider it.

In the letter, a copy of which was seen by AFP, Hadi urged lawmakers to cooperate with him "to normalise the security and economic situation in all provinces."

Iran support 'critical'

He also called on government ministers to "head immediately to Aden to convene," the aide said.
Prime Minister Bahah remains under house arrest in Sanaa along with other ministers and officials.

In an angry riposte, the Huthis urged countries to avoid dealing with Hadi, whom they said would face legal action.

Critics have accused Iran of backing the Huthis in a bid to destabilise Yemen, strategically located on oil-rich Saudi Arabia's southern flank and along key maritime shipping routes.

Speaking to lawmakers in Washington, Kerry said Iran's support for the Huthis "contributed" to the government's collapse.

He said its backing was "critical" to the militia, but added that Iranian leaders appeared to have been surprised by events in country and "are hoping to see a national dialogue" take place.

On Monday, Gulf monarchies, long wary of Iran's alleged support for the militia, urged Yemenis to "stand by the president and support him... in order to end Yemen's dangerous situation caused by Huthis".

Analysts said Hadi's re-emergence was likely to confuse the situation even further.

"Hadi's return to the (political) game has generated confusion which the international community will have trouble sorting out," said Laurent Bonnefoy, a Yemen expert and political science professor at Paris research university Sciences Po.

Given that Hadi is a Sunni and from the south, it could deepen the country's north-south division and its sectarian fault lines, he said.

The Huthis have pushed their advance south and west into mainly Sunni areas, where they have met with fierce resistance from tribesmen and Yemen's powerful branch of Al Qaeda.

Hadi became president in 2012 after longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power by a year-long uprising.

The continued chaos has raised fears that Yemen - a key US ally that has allowed Washington to carry out a longstanding drone war against Al Qaeda - will collapse into a failed state and fuel further regional instability.

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