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Kidnapped Indian priest alive, says Yemeni foreign minister

Church officials unaware of motive or identity of kidnappers of priest who went missing in March 2016

Swati Deb, New Delhi

Swati Deb, New Delhi

Published: July 12, 2017 10:00 AM GMT

Updated: July 12, 2017 10:19 AM GMT

Kidnapped Indian priest alive, says Yemeni foreign minister

A file image of Salesian Father Thomas Uzhunnalil who was kidnapped, March 4, 2016 by suspected Islamic terrorists who stormed a home for elderly people managed by Missionaries of Charity in the Yemeni port city of Aden. The terrorists shot dead 16 people, including four nuns during the attack. (Photo supplied)

Yemen's minister for foreign affairs told Indian officials during a visit to New Delhi that the Indian priest kidnapped in Yemen last year is still alive and efforts to trace him continue.

Abdulmalik Abduljalil Al-Mekhlafi, gave his reassurances on the status of Salesian Father Thomas Uzhunnalil in a meeting with the Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj at the start of his four-day tour of India July 10, an official statement said.

Swaraj stressed the Indian government's concern for the safety of the priest and reiterated the request for "continued assistance from the Yemeni authorities in securing his safe and early release."

The 56-year-old priest was kidnapped March 4, 2016, after suspected Islamic terrorists stormed a home for elderly people managed by the Missionaries of Charity nuns in the port city of Aden. The assailants shot dead 16 people, including four nuns before kidnapping the priest, who served as the chaplain of the house.

The official statement said Al-Mekhlafi, who is also the deputy prime minister, informed the government that Father Uzhunnalil is "alive and the Yemeni government has been making all efforts to secure his release. He assured all cooperation in this regard."

In February this year, at least 60 children, dressed as the infant Jesus, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his intervention for the early release of Father Uzhunnalil, who hails from Kerala in southern India.

Father Uzhunnalil belongs to Salesians of Don Bosco's Bangalore province. He had been working as a missionary under Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia.

Church officials said they had not received any demands for ransom in the last year and were unaware about the motive or identity of the kidnappers, making their role in the rescue effort impossible.

Amid rumors of torture by Islamic militants, two videos have appeared on social media in which the priest sought the help of the church and Indian officials.

The first video requested the church maintain its efforts to secure his release without specifying any specific action. In the second, the priest said his captors had contacted the Indian authorities "several times" and the replies, which he said he had seen, were "very, very poor."

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"They also contacted the bishop of Abu Dhabi," he said. "There, too, the response was not encouraging. Neither the bishop nor the Indian government authorities asked them what they really want to get me released. It is a poor response, and I am sad about that."

Asking his family and friends to pressure the authorities, he said, "Please, please, do what you can to get me released. May God bless you for that."

Swaraj thanked the Yemeni government for their whole-hearted cooperation and support in evacuating Indian and foreign nationals from the country in April 2015. The operation was the Indian government's second-largest evacuation mission in recent times rescuing more than 6,000 Indians from war-torn Yemen.

The situation in Yemen had worsened after a coalition of countries, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a military offensive against the anti-government Zaidi Shia rebels.

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