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In Yemen, there's no word on the fate of six foreigners, most of them Germans, who were taken hostage by gunmen earlier this month. The bodies of three others, all women, were found soon after the group was seized.

As Kelly McEvers reports, analysts say the killings and kidnappings are most likely the work of al-Qaida.

KELLY MCEVERS: The group worked for Worldwide Services, a Christian relief organization based in the Holland that for decades has been affiliated with a hospital in northwest Yemen. Two German women and a South Korean woman were found shot to death last week. Yemeni security forces are continuing to search for six others: a British man, a German man and his wife and three children. The government is offering $275,000 for any information leading to the kidnappers.

Gregory Johnsen, a researcher on Yemen and terrorism at Princeton, says the killings and kidnapping fit with the aims of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group led by Yemeni militant Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

Professor GREGORY JOHNSEN (Political Science and International Studies, Princeton University): Nasir al-Wuhayshi and the rest of al-Qaida's leadership in Yemen has kind of consistently had this refrain that all foreigners who are in Yemen are there to convert Muslims and to really erode the Muslim faith within Arabia, which is the heartland of Islam, of course, which is one of the reasons that the group has continually and consistently kind of beat the drum of expelling the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.

MCEVERS: Earlier this year, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed it killed four South Korean tourists, accusing them of proselytizing. Johnsen says even if al-Qaida is not directly responsible for this most recent attack, Nasir al-Wuhayshi might take credit for it anyway. This, he says, will help win new recruits.

Prof. JOHNSEN: Whether it turns out to be something that was directed from al-Qaida or not, it'll likely be something that al-Wuhayshi would praise because it certainly fits sort of the framework of how he's portraying this conflict that he's involved with.

MCEVERS: Kidnapping foreigners is nothing new in northwest Yemen. The region is a stronghold of the Shiite Houthi tribe that's been at war with the Yemeni government since 2004.

The Houthis usually kidnap foreigners to bring attention to their claims of unfair treatment. Hostages are almost always released unharmed. The Yemeni government initially blamed this most recent attack on the Houthis. The Houthis have denied the claim.

Yemeni terrorism analyst Mohammad Saif Haidar says if al-Qaida is not responsible for the attack, then other Sunni extremists are.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SAIF HAIDAR (Terrorism Analyst): (Through Translator) I am 100 percent sure that this was done by an Islamist group. And this group believes the same things that al-Qaida believes.

MCEVERS: Haidar says Islamist extremists are working to destabilize the Yemeni government, which already is battling the Houthis in the north and a secular movement in the south that's agitating to secede.

Arab and Western terrorism experts say al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula hopes to take advantage of the growing instability. This branch of al-Qaida is made up of Yemeni and Saudi militants. Two Saudis, one operative and one alleged financier, recently were taken into custody in Yemen.

American officials say members of the larger al-Qaida network are looking to Yemen as a safe haven and fleeing to Yemen from the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Yemeni analyst Murad Zafir of the National Institute for Democracy says he sees little evidence of that.

Mr. MURAD ZAFIR (Deputy Director, National Democratic Institute): I don't think Yemen is like a last resort. I think Yemen is a battleground.

MCEVERS: That battleground likely will involve more attacks and soon, Zafir says, inside Yemen and possibly its neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Riyadh.

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