DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates said Sunday that its military freed a British hostage who was kidnapped 18 months ago by al-Qaida in Yemen, which has expanded its reach amid fighting between Shiite rebels and their opponents.
A statement carried by the UAE's official WAM news agency identified the British hostage as Robert Douglas Semple, after initially referring to him as Douglas Robert Semple. It said Semple, 64, had been working as a petroleum engineer in the Yemeni province of Hadramawt when he was kidnapped in February 2014. The statement did not say where Semple had been held in Yemen or provide any details on the rescue.
Yemeni security officials contacted by The Associated Press said they were not aware of any Yemeni forces assisting in the operation and did not have details about how Semple was released, suggesting his handover may have been negotiated among local tribesmen before the involvement of Emirati forces.
Al-Qaida's Yemen branch, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been consolidating its control in Hadramawt, the country's largest province, where Semple was kidnapped. The group captured a large weapons depot, an airport, an oil terminal and the area's main military base in April, and it controls the provincial capital, Mukalla.
On Saturday, Yemeni security officials told The Associated Press that al-Qaida militants also seized control of areas in and around the southern port city of Aden, where the rebels had recently been driven out by an array of fighters backed by Saudi-led airstrikes.
The fighting pits Shiite rebels known as Houthis and troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against a mix of local militias, Sunni tribesmen and other backers of the current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia. The Houthis and their allies control much of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa.
Al-Qaida, a Sunni extremist group, has allied with some of the forces battling the Houthis.
The UAE has military forces in Aden and is part of a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab countries that has been bombing the Houthis and their allies since late March. The conflict has killed more than 1,950 civilians, wounded more than 23,000 people and pushed the already impoverished nation to the brink of famine, according to the U.N.
The UAE said Semple was freed during a military intelligence operation and taken to Aden before being flown by UAE military aircraft to Abu Dhabi. He was greeted at the airport by the British ambassador and taken for medical checks at a hospital, the statement said.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed the release of a British hostage by UAE forces in a military intelligence operation.
"The British national is safe and well, and is receiving support from British government officials," he said in a statement, adding that the government is "very grateful for the assistance of the UAE."
The WAM statement said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan telephoned British Prime Minister David Cameron Saturday evening to inform him of the operation.
Washington considers al-Qaida's Yemen branch to be the most dangerous offshoot of the global terror network and has repeatedly targeted it with drone strikes. In June, the White House said a drone strike killed the head of al-Qaida's Yemeni branch, Nasir al-Wahishi, who was considered the second most senior leader in the global network.
Yemen's al-Qaida branch has attempted several direct attacks on the United States, including a botched 2009 plot to bomb an American passenger jet. The group has a history of kidnapping foreigners in exchange for multi-million-dollar ransoms.
In December, American citizen Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie were killed in a failed U.S. rescue attempt. Somers had been kidnapped by al-Qaida in Sanaa in September 2013 and Korkie in the city of Taiz in May 2013.
Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj contributed to this report from Sanaa, Yemen.