The Abyan kidnap trial
2. The accused
3. Witnesses in the trial: four Yemeni drivers
Witnesses in the trial: four Yemeni drivers
FEBRUARY 8, 1999. Four Yemeni drivers who were kidnapped along with the western tourists gave evidence. One driver spoke about phone calls made by the kidnappers' leader. He told of one call to Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (President Salih's half-brother) and another to someone called "Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Jaza'iri".
The court also heard that in an earlier phone call the kidnap leader described his hostages as "ordered goods". He is alleged to have said: "We've got the goods that were ordered - 1,600 cartons marked 'British' and 'American'."
But the drivers' testimony about how four of the hostages died was inconclusive. Below is a translated report of the testimony given by one of the drivers.
Witness 1: Abd al-Khaliq Yahya Biza'
(driver from Sana'a province)
On December 28 we were travelling from Habban to Aden. There were five vehicles in the convoy and I was in the second one. About 11am, five kilometres after Lahmar, another vehicle suddenly blocked the road. Armed men appeared from the left and right, and from between the trees, firing into the air.
When I stopped I saw someone with a grenade in his hand who ordered me out and took the vehicle, together with the keys. He hit me on the head with his weapon. They took me in the last vehicle and I didn't see anyone with me except all the drivers who had been seized. Then they drove the vehicles with some of the kidnappers riding on top…
We went northwards for about five kilometres … They stopped the cars under a tree and made the foreign tourists get out. They took their passports and asked their nationality, then allowed them to get light things such as water and food. After that they took them - I don’t know where - and left us with a group of them [the kidnappers].
They had a telephone and made calls with it. I heard Abu al-Hassan calling someone and he said: "We've got the goods that were ordered - 1,600 cartons marked 'British' and 'American'."
… Abu al-Hassan came and said to me: "We're taking your car somewhere". One person went in it and came back after half an hour and brought money for Abu al-Hassan. Then Usama al-Masri [one of the kidnappers] returned in their car carrying a gun for firing rockets and his personal weapon…
We began discussing their demands but they said it was none of our business: "We have religious demands."
We heard them phoning during the night. Abu al-Hassan phoned Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar [president Salih's half-brother] demanding the release of some friends who had been arrested in Aden, and he also phoned "Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Jaza'iri". They said the reply would be at 12 midnight.
They took the luggage from the vehicles and put the vehicles under the trees. Then they opened the cases and checked them. There was a diplomatic case among them. They tried to open it but could not do so, even with great force. Later we saw on their heads the special head lamps that the tourists used.
We asked Ali al-Khudr if we could sleep on top of the vehicles. He said: "No, we'll give you beds on the ground, but I'll ask permission for you from Abu al-Hassan." They did allow us to [sleep on top] but they said we were forbidden to open the vehicles, "and if anyone leaves, we'll smash his head".
It was impossible to sleep and at 12 o'clock I heard voices at the side of the car. I saw the tourists coming towards us, together with a group of the kidnappers. They brought them to a spot behind the tree next to us. They lit firewood and Ali al-Khudr invited us to dinner. They brought us fried meat with gravy…
We slept until dawn with the tourists at our side. At dawn we prayed. They told us to go back under the tree and sent the tourists back to their previous spot.
At eight o'clock we heard three shots in our direction and one of the kidnappers said this was a signal for them. Abu al-Hassan went with a group towards the place where the shots had been fired. The others stayed behind in a state of readiness. They had various weapons such as bombs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) - a wide range of weapons.
…After a while I heard firing and one of the kidnappers said: "That's shooting from us so that the army won't approach."
I heard one of them say: "Bring five tourists, with David in the lead, to put them in front."
…After that Ali al-Khudr, Usama al-Masri and a group who I didn't know approached the tourists and I saw them firing behind the tourists in the direction of the army. They said: "If the army approaches them we'll start killing the Christians." They kept calling out "Allahu akbar!" and one of those with us fired a bazooka at the army, causing a thick cloud of dust where we were…
They said to one: "Here are the [car] keys. Go with al-Baydani [one of the drivers] to the army and tell them that if they don't stop advancing on us, we'll start killing the tourists."
He said: "They'll kill me."
They said: "Trust in God."
The driver al-Baydani went. The firing was very heavy on both sides, then we saw that the army had come upon us from various directions. Some of the kidnappers went behind us and fired from behind us. I heard one of them - al-Khudr - say: "Soldier, don't advance. Lay down your weapons or we'll kill the American woman."
The soldier said: "Lay down your weapons or the shooting goes on."
…The army arrived at our spot and we signalled to them that we were drivers… They asked about my car and I said: "The key is with them [the kidnappers] but my friend has a spare." I opened the car through the broken window. One of the army men said to me: "One of the women tourists is injured." They took her in my car, along with three soldiers, to the hospital in Mudiyyah.
Witness questioned by the prosecution:
Q. Who started the shooting - the kidnappers or the government forces?
A. The kidnappers started the shooting.
Q. How many kidnappers were there?
A. About 15 or 16.
Q. Did a group of people come to mediate and find out the kidnappers’ demands?
A. I didn’t see anyone come to us in the exact spot where we were.
Q. The suspect Hussein Abu Huraira was wounded there. What was his role?
A. Yes, he was wounded, and they were calling him "Abu Huraira", but I don’t know his precise role.
Q. Who were the people among them who collected the passports, checked the bags and took the money and the women’s gold jewellery?
A. I saw Usama with the passports. The other things were gathered up and taken far away.
Q. Who was interpreting between the kidnappers and the tourists?
A. I don’t know who was interpreting.
Q. We want to determine the weapons that the kidnappers were carrying and whether they were all armed or not.
A. When we were seized - at the time of the kidnap - we didn’t see anyone without a weapon…
Q. On the following day, December 29, did other people come and join the kidnappers?
A. Yes, one person came and greeted us and the others.
Q. When you heard Abu al-Hassan phoning people, did you notice him calling Abu Hamza in London?
A. I don’t know who he called, but I heard him say: "We’ve got the goods that were ordered - 16 cartons, British and American."
Q. Did the kidnappers use the tourists as human shields?
A. Yes, they used the tourists as human shields.
Witness questioned by the defence (Muhammad Saif Thabit, representing Abu al-Hassan):
Q. You said the army set out to hit the kidnappers' spot. Did you see the army or did you only hear it?
A. I didn’t see it, except at the end …
Q. You mentioned in your statement that you suddenly saw people from the army behind, and after that, some of the kidnappers behind you.
A. The army did not come from behind.
Q. You said that you saw the army at the end after they came to where you were. How did you know they were the army?
A. They came to us and we said we were drivers and we were able to make out that they were from the armed forces.
Q. You said that the kidnappers were armed. Did you see any of them, and especially suspect No 1 [Abu al-Hassan] open fire on anyone?
A. I didn’t see anyone open fire, and those of the kidnappers who were sitting with us are not here today in court.
Q. You mentioned in your statement that the kidnappers took out al the tourists' things - money, jewellery, etc. Do you know who took them or what happened to them?
A. They took the baggage down from on top of the cars. I don’t know who took them, but this is one of them [indicating al-Junaidi].
Q. You mentioned that the kidnappers gave you meat and gravy. Did they give the tourists the same as they gave you?
A. We stayed next to the cars and they gave us food and water. The tourists were not with us, they were a long way off.
Q. Did you see any of the tourists wounded or killed in front of you?
A. A woman tourist.
Q. Where was she wounded?
A. In her thigh.
Q. Did you see any of the kidnappers wounded or killed?
A. I didn’t see, apart from Usama on the road.
A full report of the day's hearing was published in Arabic in al-Ayyam newspaper, issue 539, 10 February, 1999 (page 5).