SANAA (Reuters) - A Finnish couple and an Austrian man abducted in Yemen last month are being held by members of al Qaeda after being sold to the militant group by tribesmen, a senior Yemeni official said on Tuesday.
The three Westerners, who were studying Arabic in Yemen, were snatched by gunmen in the capital Sanaa on December 21. An Interior Ministry official had said they were being held by tribesmen who were demanding a ransom.
"The tribesmen have sold the three abductees to elements from al Qaeda organization and they were transferred to Bayda province (in the south)," the official told Reuters.
"There are negotiations to pay a ransom and free them."
Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was quoted as saying on Monday that the three Westerners were kidnapped by "terrorist groups", state news agency Saba reported. Hadi's comments were made during a meeting with the Finnish and Austrian ambassadors, Saba said.
The kidnapping of Westerners occurs sporadically in Yemen, mostly by tribesmen seeking bargaining clout in disputes with the authorities or by al Qaeda militants and their sympathizers.
Lawlessness in the Arabian Peninsula state has alarmed its neighbor, top world oil exporter Saudi Arabia, and the United States, which views Yemen as a frontline in its struggle against al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates in the country, is seen by U.S. officials as the most dangerous offshoot of the global militant network.
There have been dozens of killings of security and military officials by suspected al Qaeda gunmen in the past year, suggesting AQAP remains resilient despite increased U.S. drone strikes and a government military onslaught.
(Reporting by Mohamemd Ghobari; Writing by Rania El Gamal; editing by Sami Aboudi and Janet Lawrence)