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Finnish, Austrian hostages freed from Yemen

An Austrian student (R) and a Finnish couple abducted in Yemen talk to the media in Muscat on May 9, 2013
An Austrian student (R) and a Finnish couple abducted in Yemen by Al-Qaeda militants talk to local media on May 9, 2013 at the airport of the Omani capital Muscat after they were handed over to Omani authorities following their release. The three European

A Finnish couple and an Austrian student abducted in Yemen by Al-Qaeda militants more than four months ago have been freed and have arrived safety in Vienna, authorities said on Thursday.

The two Finns, Leila and Atte Kaleva, "will return to their loved ones as soon as possible", the Finnish foreign ministry said in a statement.

"In view of the circumstances, they are in good condition. The long deprivation of liberty, however, is a traumatic experience both for those abducted and for their loved ones," added the statement.

They and the Austrian man, 26-year-old Dominik Neubauer, are currently being treated at a military hospital in Vienna, Austrian authorities said.

The trio, seized in Sanaa on December 21, were freed by local tribesmen on the border with Oman overnight Wednesday, according to a Yemeni official.

"They were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants... demanding a ransom and the release of members held in Yemeni jails," the official added.

A tribal source told AFP the kidnappers were demanding $50 million (38 million euros) to release the Europeans.

According to Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung, a ransom of one million euros was paid to free the Austrian.

A security source added that energy-rich Qatar "offered, through an intermediary, to pay a ransom but the hostage-takers did not agree on the amount offered."

Swedish news agency TT, quoting the Finnish news agency, said the Finnish man was a military officer studying Arabic and working on a paper on political radicalisation in the Middle East.

It identified the woman as his wife, an executive in an oil company visiting her husband when the kidnapping took place.

A Finnish couple and an Austrian student (front) abducted in Yemen by Al-Qaeda militants wave in Muscat on May 9, 2013
A Finnish couple and an Austrian student (front) abducted in Yemen by Al-Qaeda militants wave on May 9, 2013 as they leave the airport of the Omani capital Muscat.

The three were seized by masked gunmen in an electronics shop in the capital and moved to different locations around Yemen, the official said, winding up in Hawf, a village on the Omani border.

He said Hawf residents had arrested the kidnappers and set free the hostages who were handed over to Omani authorities.

At the end of March, Finland's foreign minister held talks in Sanaa with Yemen's president about the fate of the hostages.

In February, Neubauer appeared in a YouTube clip with a gun to his head, saying his captors would kill him unless Austria, Yemen and the European Union met their ransom demands.

In early January, Yemeni security officials said the Europeans were being held by Al Qaeda-linked tribesmen in Marib province of eastern Yemen.

Al-Qaeda militants, active in southern and eastern Yemen, rarely carry out kidnappings, but Saudi diplomat Abdullah al-Khalidi has remained in the hands of the jihadist network since his abduction in Aden on March 28, 2012.

Most kidnappings of foreigners in Yemen are by members of powerful tribes who use them as bargaining chips in disputes with the central government.

Hundreds of people have been abducted over the past 15 years. Almost all have been freed unharmed.

Finland thanked Austria, Oman, the authorities of Yemen and "all other international contacts for their cooperation in resolving this issue."

But the foreign ministry statement warned: "Yemen remains a highly dangerous travel destination."

"The risk of being abducted is real, nor do all cases end as well."