A Yemeni soldier inspects the site were a suicide car bomb killed 11 soldiers in the city of Saba in central Yemen on January 28, 2013. The attack targeted a checkpoint manned by members of a battalion of the elite Republican Guards on the road between Rada and Manaseh, where the army military operation was taking place, according to tribal sources. Image Credit: AFP

Sana’a: Yemeni forces have suspended an offensive aimed at freeing three Western hostages that has cost more than 65 lives to allow for tribal mediators to try to secure their release, local sources said on Thursday.

Eighteen soldiers and 48 Al Qaida-linked militants have died in the military operation that began early on Monday in the Al Qaida stronghold of Manasseh, in Bayda province of central Yemen, according to tribal sources and military officials.

Tribal mediators aim to secure the release of two Finns and an Austrian snatched from central Sana’a in December and who authorities believe are being held in Manasseh, the sources said.

A ceasefire came into effect late on Wednesday following mediation by tribal chiefs, the sources said, adding the army was demanding that all foreign Al Qaida fighters leave Manasseh.

Local sources said a number of civilians have also been killed in army shelling of the area but without giving a number.

The army has been hunting two brothers of Tarek Al Dahab, an Al Qaida leader killed in a February 2012 attack. They are suspected of holding the European hostages and have so far refused to surrender despite mediation efforts.

The Austrian man and Finnish man and woman were abducted in Sana’a on December 21 as they prepared to travel to the southern port of Aden via Yemen’s second city of Taez.

Earlier this month, Yemeni security officials had said the Europeans were being held by Al Qaida-linked tribesmen in the eastern Marib province.

Most kidnappings of foreigners are carried out by members of the country’s powerful tribes who use them as bargaining chips in disputes with the central government.

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

Al Qaida militants, active in the south and east of Yemen, rarely carry out kidnappings. But a Saudi diplomat, Abdullah Al Khalidi, has remained in the hands of the jihadist network since his abduction in Aden on March 28.