fly home as Foreign Office asks: Why did four die?
by Audrey Gillan and Brian Whitaker
Originally published in The Guardian,
1 January, 1999
THE hostages who survived a gun battle in
the Yemeni desert were last night on their way home to Britain as the Government demanded
an explanation for the disastrous rescue operation that left four kidnapped tourists dead.
Amid continuing confusion over the chain of events which
led to the deaths, a British tourist who saw his wife killed during the bungled rescue
attempt said he was told to change his account to remove any suggestion that Yemeni troops
could have been responsible.
Laurence Whitehouse was instructed by a colonel from the
Yemeni secret police to alter his account of the death of his wife, Margaret, removing
from the statement his remark that the fatal bullet 'could have been anybody's', he said.
Yemen's ambassador was summoned by the Foreign Office and
told that his government had failed to explain the events that resulted in the shoot-out
after the 16 holidaymakers were kidnapped.
In a 45-minute meeting with the Foreign Office's director
of Middle Eastern affairs, Hussein al-Amri, was told of the Government's dissatisfaction
over the Yemenis' failure to provide a full account of what happened. A Foreign Office
spokesman said that the Britons - who left Aden yesterday morning for the Yemeni capital
Sana'a - were 'desperate' to get home.
But survivor Claire Marston, 43, of Durham, whose husband
Peter Rowe, 60, was shot dead - was not well enough to leave. The rest of the party will
arrive at Gatwick airport this evening.
As Yemeni security forces interviewed the survivors and
asked them to write individual accounts of the gun battle, prime minister Abdel Karim
al-Iryani sent a letter to Tony Blair justifying the action of his troops.
The Yemen government insists its soldiers only intervened
after three of the hostages had been shot. But Eric Firkins, a chemistry lecturer from
Croydon, said that the deaths were 'revenge killings' which came only troops moved in.
The British ambassador in Sana'a, Victor Henderson,
yesterday had a 'very short' meeting with the Yemeni foreign and interior ministers which
failed to produce a satisfactory explanation.
'They threatened to kill the hostages if their demands
were not met within one hour. They said they would decapitate them,' Yemen's interior
minister, Hussein Mohammed Arab, claimed later. 'The troops heard gunfire and intervened
swiftly to save the hostages and in 35 minutes the area was secured.' But freed hostage,
David Holmes told ITN yesterday: 'We were told to stand in front of the machine gun which
was all the time working and my three colleagues - the lady who died, her husband and the
Australian who also died - were about two yards to my left. I didn't think that any of us
- the bandits or hostages - had any hopes of survival.' It emerged that the group
responsible for the Yemen kidnappings has long-standing links with Osama bin Laden, the
millionaire terrorist wanted by the US in connection with the embassy bombings last
A statement in the name of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army
claimed responsibility for seizing the tourists last Monday and said the action was partly
aimed at freeing Islamic Jihad members under arrest in Yemen, but also at ending 'Western
aggression against Iraq'.
Last August, following the US embassy bombings, the same
group issued a statement declaring 'total war' on American interests in Yemen.
One of the kidnappers who died in the shoot-out was
identified by Yemeni officials as a wanted Egyptian Islamic extremist.