The official said on Tuesday there had been positive indications in the negotiations between local authorities and the tribesmen and other government officials have made similar positive comments.

The official told Reuters on condition of anonymity: "There are positive indications. We could be seeing a resolution very soon."

The Italian kidnappings are the fourth time Westerners have been taken in less than two months, and have stoked fears that a wave of abductions which swept Yemen years ago, may return.

The kidnappers have threatened to kill their captives if an attempt is made to free them by force. They have demanded that jailed members of their tribe be released to secure the release of the Italians' freedom.

Security ring

Security forces and army units have surrounded the remote area in the mountainous Marib province where the kidnappers are holding the two Italian men and three women.

Mario Boffo, Italy's ambassador said the Yemeni government should avoid any initiative that could endanger the safety of the hostages, reiterating earlier calls by Gianfranco Fini, the Italian foreign minister

Ali Abdullah Saleh has vowed to
crack down on kidnappers

Boffo told Aljazeera from Sanaa: "The message from our government is that I've told the Yemeni government that we are against any action that would put our kidnapped citizens in danger.

"And the Yemeni government has assured me they would not do anything that would endanger the hostages."

Abubakr al-Qirbi, Yemen's foreign affairs minister, said the possibility of using force was remote.

Al-Qirbi told Reuters: "Yemen depends on pressure on the kidnappers to release them ... the last option is the use of force - and we hope not to resort to it."

Old scourge

Scores of tourists and foreigners working in Yemen have been kidnapped over the last decade by tribesmen demanding better schools, roads and services, or the release of jailed relatives but most hostages have been released unharmed.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, has vowed to crack down on the kidnappers, branding them criminals.

Impoverished Yemen hopes to boost its tourism industry, but attacks by al-Qaida-linked fighters and kidnappings by disgruntled tribesmen have scared off many travellers.

The Italians were seized just a day after five German hostages were freed unharmed. But in 2000 a Norwegian diplomat was killed in crossfire, and in 1998 four Westerners died during a botched army attempt to free them from Islamic fighters.