ADEN: Yemeni rebels have abducted a dozen local staff working for the Norwegian Refugee Council in the Red Sea district of Hodeida, a minister and local sources said on Monday. However, the council has denied this claim.
Local sources told AFP the employees, all Yemeni citizens, were taken in a Thursday raid over accusations they had accepted and distributed aid from a Saudi-led coalition, which has been battling the Huthi rebels since March 2015.
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The 12 employees were taken hostage from the aid group's offices in the Hali district of rebel-held Hodeida late last week, Local Affairs Minister Abdul Raqib Fattah said in a statement carried by the pro-government sabanew.net news website.
Norwegian Refugee Council denies
The Norwegian Refugee Council has denied the news in a press release.
According to the NRC, six of their staff and a contracted driver were detained by the local authorities on February 14 because of a confusion where "the NRC staff opened the hygiene kit boxes at the distribution, they came to learn that the boxes, which had no markings on the outside, had a text written on the inside of the boxes which said “The campaign of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for emergency response.”
The boxes were dated January 2015, before the conflict escalated in March 2015, and the boxes were originally used for food. The boxes had been reused by the contracted vender as hygiene kits packaging. Recycling like this is common in the country."
Stressing their seriousness for the cause, NRC Head of Communications Tuva Raanes Bogsnes said that, "Our highest priorities now are to safeguard the safety and security of our staff, and investigate this matter fully. We are in contact with the local authorities, and we request that the authorities guarantee the safety, security and well-being of our staff in Al-Hudaydah, which has been assured. We reiterate that NRC is a neutral organisation and does not have any Saudi funded projects in Yemen."
Yemen's conflict pits a Saudi-led Arab coalition supportive of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against Iran-backed Huthis, who currently control the Red Sea port of Hodeida along with the capital Sanaa and large parts of northern Yemen.
Monday's news comes amid a push by forces loyal to Hadi, backed by the Arab coalition, to close in on Hodeida, located on Yemen's western coast. Forces loyal to the government took full control of Mokha, south of Hodeida, earlier in February as part of a major offensive to oust the Huthis and their allies from Yemen's southwestern coast.
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Yemen's conflict escalated in March 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition began air strikes to help forces loyal to Hadi to take large parts of the country back from the rebels.
More than 7,400 people have been killed and nearly 40,000 injured in two years of fighting in Yemen, according to the World Health Organisation. UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen James McGoldrick in January said more than 10,000 civilians had been killed since 2015.