Men linked to al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen are demanding a $12 million ransom for three abducted French aid workers, security officials and local tribesmen said Wednesday.
The two women and one man were abducted three months ago in eastern Yemen's Hadramawt province, which is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, but it was not until Wednesday that their captors made the ransom demand, the officials said.
At the time of their abduction, the foreigners worked for the aid group Triangle Generation Humanitaire, which is based in Lyon, France.
Intelligence chief Ghaleb al-Qamish and other senior government officials have asked prominent figures in the town of Sayoun to mediate their release, security officials and tribesmen said.
The officials and tribesmen spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In the past few years, al-Qaida has kidnapped a number of foreigners, sometimes with lethal results.
The director of the French aid group, Patrick Verbruggen, said his organization has not had contact with the kidnappers since the May 28 abduction.
He said he had no information on whether the aid workers were being held by al-Qaida or if a ransom had been demanded.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Wednesday that his government could not confirm if an al-Qaida-linked group was behind the abductions or if a ransom had been demanded.
"We have been fully mobilized since the beginning to obtain the release of our compatriots, and in their interest, we should observe the greatest discretion to preserve the effectiveness of our actions," he told an online briefing.
Security in Yemen has largely unraveled since the outbreak of an uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February. Last month, Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after he was wounded in an attack on his presidential compound.
His departure has further emboldened militants who have taken control of at least two towns and surrounding territory in Yemen's lawless south.
On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated across Yemen, calling for Saleh's ouster. In the capital of Sanaa, security forces and armed government supporters attacked dozens of women protesters with sticks in front of the U.S. Embassy. The women accused Washington of not supporting calls to unseat Saleh, a longtime U.S. ally.
In a statement, the protesters said they were also cursed by the counter-demonstrators who held up pictures of Saleh.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa said it took note of the incident and regretted the violence.
"The United States reiterates its stance that peaceful protesters have the right to demonstrate and should be allowed to gather without fear of violent reprisal," said a statement on the embassy's website.
Meanwhile, activist Ahmed Aqil in the southern town of Ibb said government loyalists attacked protesters, firing at them from a nearby hotel. The hotel manager said the armed men entered the hotel at gunpoint.
Aqil said six protesters were injured in the attack, as people rallied for Saleh's ouster and demanded a solution to an acute shortage of fuel plaguing the Arab world's most impoverished country.
In the central city of Radda, activist Ahmed al-Abed said gunmen fired in the air during a large anti-government demonstration in an attempt to disrupt the rally. No casualties were reported.
Tens of thousands of protesters held a rally in Yemen's second-largest city, Taiz, calling for the trial of the city's security chief and the commander of the Republican Guard, who is also the president's son.
Protesters said the army was carrying out near-daily attacks on the city's outskirts where tribesmen have joined forces with anti-government protesters.