Yemen aid workers 'not abducted': NGO rejects minister's claims

Yemen aid workers 'not abducted': NGO rejects minister's claims
The Norwegian Refugee Council has denied claims from one Yemeni minister that members of its staff were abducted last week under suspicion of distributing aid from Saudi Arabia
3 min read
20 February, 2017
The incident took place in the western city of al-Hudaydah [Archive/Getty]

A Norwegian NGO has denied that local members of its staff in Yemen had been abducted, following claims made by a minister within the country's Saudi-backed government.

Local Affairs Minister Abdul Raqib Fattah on Monday told the pro-government SabaNews website that 12 Yemeni employees of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) had been taken hostage from the aid group's offices in the Hali district of Houthi-held Hodeida late last week.

Similar claims were also made by local sources who spoke to AFP.

The NRC staff were said to have been abducted over accusations that they accepted and distributed aid from the Saudi-led coalition - which supports the presidency of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and has been fighting against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since March 2015.

However, in comment to The New Arab on Monday, a spokesperson from the NRC said that six of its staff members and a contracted driver had only been temporarily detained.

Tuva Raanes Bogsnes, NRC's head of communications, further denied that the organisation accepted funding from Saudi Arabia for its projects in an online statement, calling on combatant groups to respect the work of charitable organisations in distributing aid.

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"We reiterate that NRC is a neutral organisation and does not have any Saudi-funded projects in Yemen," read the statement.

"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."

The NRC said that its staff had been detained in al-Hudaydah on Tuesday February 14, following a misunderstanding when local authorities found boxes containing hygiene kits bearing the phrase "The campaign of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" - a reference to Saudi Arabia.

The Norwegian NGO said that the boxes were dated from January 2015 - before Saudi Arabia joined the conflict in support of Hadi's government - and were originally used for food, before being re-used by the contracted vendor to package hygiene kits.

"As Yemen has long been in conflict, recycling like this is common," read the statement, adding that, as a result of the incident, the NRC had been forced to suspend its local hygiene promotion projects - part and parcel of the organisation's cholera response - "until the matter is resolved".

All of the NGO's other projects and offices in al-Hudaydah and elsewhere in Yemen remain "fully functional".

Aid work conducted by the NRC in Yemen includes providing emergency shelters for displaced people, in addition to providing food aid, and educational opportunities.

In 2016 the NRC said that its aid programmes had reached more than 1,200,000 people in Yemen.

According to the UN, 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in March 2015, after Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa overthrew President Hadi. Famine is also widespread in the country, further raising humanitarian concerns.