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Published: Friday January 17, 2014 MYT 6:10:01 PM
Updated: Friday January 17, 2014 MYT 6:10:51 PM

Top South Africa diplomat heads to Yemen to negotiate hostage release

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa is sending a top diplomat to Yemen to negotiate the release of one of its citizens being held hostage by al Qaeda-linked gunmen and threatened with imminent execution, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

Pierre Korkie and his wife Yolande were kidnapped by militants in mid-2013 and then held in a mountainous area under the control of Islamist militiamen in the southern Abyan province.

Last week, the gunmen released Yolande after tribal mediation but are still holding her husband. On Thursday, South African media reported the gunmen would execute Korkie within 24 hours if they did not receive a ransom of nearly $3 million.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim would travel to Yemen for talks with the Yemeni government and "other relevant role players" in a bid to secure Pierre's release, the ministry said in a statement.

"It is hoped that the visit by Deputy Minister Ebrahim to Yemen will result in Mr Korkie being released unharmed and as soon as possible," it said.

Before their capture, the couple had been working as teachers for four years, according to Gift of the Givers, a non-government organisation that has also been negotiating with the militia.

The captors had originally thought the Korkies were U.S. citizens.

Kidnapping of foreigners in Yemen is common, often carried out by disgruntled tribesmen seeking to press the government to free jailed relatives or to improve public services, or by Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda.

(Reporting by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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