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Kidnapped Britons "were used as human shields"

Yemen survivors say army attack provoked murder of hostages

by Rory Carroll and Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 31 December, 1998

YEMENI kidnappers used British tourists as human shields and executed them after security forces stormed their hide-out, survivors said yesterday, contradicting the authorities' version of the botched rescue.

The hostages were caught in the middle after government troops opened fire and the Islamic extremists tried to escape, leaving four hostages dead and two wounded.

'It was getting tenser and tenser and the abductors were getting more keen to use us as human shields. We were told to stand up in open ground with our hands up,' said BRIAN Smith, aged 52, a Peterborough postal worker. Bullets whizzed overhead for two hours, he added.

Another hostage, Eric Firkins, aged 55, a chemistry professor from Croydon, south London, said: 'The worst time for me was when a barrel was pointed at my chest.' The kidnappers had split their 16 captives into two groups and were leading them to a mountain hide-out on Tuesday when they heard gunfire from government forces.

The dead Britons were named as Peter Rowe, aged 60, a maths lecturer at Durham University; Margaret Whitehouse, aged 53, a teacher from Hook, Hampshire; and Ruth Williamson, aged 34, from Edinburgh. Andrew Thirsk, aged 35, of Sydney, Australia, also died.

Dr Rowe's wife, Claire Marston, aged 43, was in Al-Jamhouriya Hospital in Aden, recovering from serious gunshot wounds to her shoulder. She was in a 'very bad way' said David Pearce of the Foreign Office. The other wounded woman, an American, was shot in the pelvis.

The uninjured survivors will fly home tomorrow, said Explore Worldwide, the travel company which organised the 14-night break.

Yemen's interior ministry yesterday stuck to its version that security forces had opened fire only after the kidnappers began killing some of their hostages at a camp, near Mawdiyah town, 175 miles south of the capital, Sana'a.

The tour group - 12 Britons, two Americans and two Australians - was abducted from its five-vehicle convoy on Monday. Three kidnappers were killed and three, including the leader, were captured, said the ministry.

The rescue has come under a barrage of criticism. Baroness Symons, the Foreign Office minister, said: 'We must get to the bottom of this, and find out why the Yemeni authorities decided to take the action they did.' Yemeni officials have identified one of the kidnappers who died as an Egyptian Islamic extremist known as Osama al-Masri. They said the kidnappers belonged to Islamic Jihad, a group of 200 members in south Yemen.

Meanwhile, four Germans kidnapped by Yemeni tribesmen on December 7 were yesterday freed unharmed, Yemeni officials said.


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Last revised on 05 August, 2015