Five staff members from the United Nations in Yemen were kidnapped in Abyan province on Friday, according to a security official of the Security Belt Forces.
The official told The National that a member of the UN office for security and safety in Aden and four other Yemeni employees of the global agency had been abducted.
“Five employees from the UN office were kidnapped in the Al Khoudiara area in Moudiya district, eastern Abyan, at 11am on Friday by unidentified gunmen,“ he said.
“The UN mission was heading from Shabwa province back to the UN main office in Aden when they were stopped by the gunmen and taken to an unknown destination."
According to the official, the UN team was accompanied by pro-government soldiers not affiliated to the Security Belt Forces.
The UN confirmed that its staff had been kidnapped and efforts were under way to free them.
"The United Nations is in close contact with the authorities to secure their release," Russell Geekie, a spokesman for the top UN official in Yemen, said.
Residents told The National that soldiers arrived in the area on Saturday and sent tribal leaders to negotiate with the kidnappers, who were reportedly trying to secure a very high ransom payment.
Security authorities in Abyan declined to comment on the negotiations.
Later on Saturday, the Yemeni government during its weekly meeting in Aden condemned the incident and said it had been working to secure early release of the kidnapped UN staff, Saba News Agency reported.
The Southern Transitional Council condemned the incident, warning that the security situation was inadequate in Abyan and the area was in danger of becoming a haven for terrorist groups.
“We strongly condemn the abduction which targeted the UN employees in eastern Abyan,” Ali Al Katheri, spokesman of the council, told The National.
“We call upon our brothers in the Arab Coalition to help return the Security Belt Forces to secure these areas in Abyan in line with the Riyadh Agreement,” he said.
The Yemen Security Belt Forces are units that were formed by a decree issued by President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi in May 2016. They fought against Al Qaeda in Lahj province, near Aden, pushing the militants out of the governorate in 2016 and extended their presence to secure Abyan province after expelling Al Qaeda in 2016-2018.
Yemen has been mired in violence since the Iran-aligned Houthi movement ousted the government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia to intervene months later.
Among Yemen's many destabilising forces are Al Qaeda and ISIS, which in the past have carried out attacks including in the south, where protests broke out last year over deteriorating economic conditions.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people and caused a dire humanitarian crisis with 80 per cent of Yemen's population reliant on aid.