The five — identified by the German Foreign Ministry as former Deputy Foreign Minister Juergen Chrobog, his wife and three children — were traveling in two cars when a group of gunmen surrounded their vehicles and forced the Germans into their vehicles and sped off, said government officials in Shabwa, the province where the kidnapping took place.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The Germans are in good health and have not been threatened, said Nasser Ba'oum, the deputy governor of Shabwa, citing tribal elders who visited the family.
Dignitaries from other tribes are mediating with the kidnappers to win the Germans' release, Ba'oum said.
The kidnappers belonged to the al-Abdullah bin Dahha tribe, a number of whose members were arrested two months ago after a clash with another tribe, the al-Maraqesha. The bin Dahha men went on trial on Tuesday on charges of killing two of al-Maraqesha during the clashes. The kidnappers have demanded the release of the men, tribal sources and officials said.
Tribesmen frequently kidnap tourists in an attempt to force concessions from the government in Yemen, a poor, mountainous nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula where state control in outlying areas is shaky.
The hostages are usually released unharmed, but several were killed in 2000 when security forces carried out a botched raid to free them.
Ba'oum said the government has agreed with a request from the mediating tribal elders for time to negotiate peacefully. He did not comment on the bin Dahha's demand for the release of the arrested men except to say that their trial had to proceed.
The mountainous region of Shabwa on the edge of the Rub' al-Khali — the vast desert of northern Yemen and southeast Saudi Arabia — is frequented by tourists visiting the historic capital of the 1st Millennium BC Kingdom of Hadhramout and the ruins of other ancient towns along the incense and spice trade routes that once ran through southern Arabia.
Chrobog, 65, was deputy foreign minister in then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government, which left office in November, and previously served as Germany's ambassador to the United States. He was on a private trip to Yemen at the invitation of the former Yemeni ambassador to Germany, German government officials said on condition of anonymity.
In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry said the family, which had been touring Yemen since Dec. 24, had disappeared and it was not clear if they had been kidnapped.
The five, who were all members of one family, were traveling as part of an organized trip to Yemen when their vehicle "was delayed," Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said. The tour operator reported them missing, he said.
"The foreign office is in contact with all the relevant authorities and is trying to find out where this family could be," Jaeger said. "We will make every effort to bring this family to safety as quickly as possible."
The ministry had set up a crisis unit to try to track the family down, he said.
Tribesmen in the mountains of central Yemen kidnapped two Austrians a week ago as the tourists were visiting a site known as the Queen of Sheba's throne in Marib, about 150 miles west of al-Irim. In that case as well, the kidnappers were demanding the release of arrested members of their tribe. The Austrians were freed unharmed two days later after the government told the tribesmen it would look into their complaints.
Two Swiss tourists were kidnapped in the same area as the Austrians a month earlier but released two days later. They were grabbed by members of the al-Jizah tribe in an effort to win the release of one of the kidnappers' brother, who had been arrested on charges of stealing a car.