Kidnapping of tourists, 28-29 December 1998
Text last updated 16 February 1999
THE ABDUCTION of 16 tourists in Abyan on December 28, 1998, was not only the largest kidnapping in Yemen's recent history, it was the first in which hostages died.
Until then, the tribal practice of kidnapping foreigners - usually to draw attention to their grievances against the government - had been little more than a persistent nuisance. Hostages were normally well-treated, and always released unharmed - even if the negotiations to free them dragged on for weeks. Some were even showered with gifts by tribesmen upon their release.
The tourists, on a Christmas and New Year tour of Yemen with a British company, Explore Worldwide, were travelling from Habban to Aden in a convoy of five four-wheel-drive vehicles. About 11am, five kilometres after Lahmar, a truck suddenly blocked the road between the first and second vehicles. Armed men appeared from the left and right, and from between the trees, firing into the air.
One tourist and the driver of the first vehicle escaped to raise the alarm. The occupants of the remaining vehicles - 12 Britons, two Australians, two Americans and four Yemeni drivers - were all taken captive.
First reports suggested it was just another tribal kidnapping - and indeed, several of the kidnappers came from the same tribe in Upper Aulaqi. But the affair rapidly assumed a more sinister dimension when it became known on this occasion the kidnapping was organised by the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, an offshoot of Jihad, led by Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar.
Mysterious phone calls
THE HOSTAGES were driven northwards about 10km from the main road to an area of rocks and scrubland. On the way they were seen by local tribesmen who recognised some of the kidnappers. Traders from a village nearby sold them bottled water and bread.
Barely an hour after the kidnapping, Abu al-Hassan was busy making calls on a satellite phone (allegedly sent from London by his friend, Abu Hamza al-Masri). In one of these calls - overheard by a Yemeni driver with the tour group - the kidnappers' leader is said to have referred to the hostages as "ordered goods". According to the driver, he said: "We've got the goods that were ordered - 1,600 cartons marked 'British' and 'American'."
It is not known if Abu al-Hassan was speaking to Abu Hamza at the time, but Abu Hamza was certainly among the first people he called. According to an interview with al-Wasat magazine (11.1.99), Abu al-Hassan told Abu Hamza he had been hoping the tourists would be mainly Americans, and seemed disappointed. The British cleric urged against harming the hostages and Abu al-Hassan agreed, saying that wanted to exchange them for nine Islamists who were under arrest. The nine prisoners consisted of two groups: Sheikh Salih Haidara al-Atawi and his two brothers who had been arrested at the beginning of December, and the six men (five Britons and an Algerian living in Britain) who had been arrested on 23/24 December.
Abu al-Hassan continued making phone calls well into the night. According to a witness, one of the people he called was Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, president Salih's half-brother - a man with enormous influence in Yemen's military, security and tribal affairs. During that call, Abu al-Hassan allegedly demanded the release of his arrested comrades.
According to the same witness, Abu al-Hassan also tried to call "Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Jaza'iri" and was told to await a return call at 12 midnight.
Meanwhile, Abu al-Hassan sent a representative to the authorities in Abyan to tell them that his group would release the hostages if the nine Islamists were freed. Almost as an afterthought, he added that UN sanctions against Iraq must also be lifted. He was told that the government was determined to free the hostages without releasing the Islamist detainees.
That night, hostages and kidnappers ate fried meat around a campfire, then slept in the open.
Shoot-out and rescue
EARLY on the second day (December 29) an elderly tribal leader, Haythmi 'Ashal, visited security officials and offered to negotiate with the kidnappers. They said they would not stand in his way.
He arrived at the hide-out with drinks and biscuits, and spent an hour or more there. But the kidnappers refused to negotiate - apparently because they did not want to do so at a local level. They allegedly told him: "We don't want anyone, we can't negotiate with anyone. We have contacts at a very high level. The response will come to us at 12 o'clock or 12.15." The baffled sheikh left.
Later that morning, government troops approached and a battle ensued, with the kidnappers shielding themselves behind hostages as they fired at the army.
How and why the shooting started is still a mystery. Initial Yemeni claims that the troops opened fire only after the kidnappers had begun to kill the hostages are not supported by the hostages' own accounts. More recent Yemeni statements by the Interior Minister, General Hussein Arab (right), have back-tracked slightly, suggesting that if the kidnappers had not actually started to kill the hostages, they had at least threatened to do so - at a rate of one hostage every two hours unless their demands were met. However, it is still not known precisely how the hostages died.
It is clear from evidence given in court that the security forces were approaching from several directions. It is also reasonably certain that the kidnappers fired the first three shots, probably hoping to halt the army's advance. Possibly they hoped, too, that by placing five hostages directly in the line of fire, they would keep the army at bay.
Later, at his trial, however, Abu al-Hassan seemed to support the government's version of events. He admitted giving orders to kill the hostages in the event of a rescue operation. He said his instruction was "to kill only the men, and not the women, if Yemeni police intervened to free the hostages."
But at least one of the hostages has also said it was impossible to tell who fired first, and a number of journalists covering the story in Yemen, as well as some military pundits, have concluded that the rescue was "bungled". The Yemenis, on the other hand, can point to dozens of earlier kidnappings which they have handled successfully, without any casualties among the hostages.
Although most of the survivors have been non-committal in public, the Australian survivor, Catherine Spence, issued a written statement on January 5 defending the army's conduct: "Had different action been taken I cannot begin to guess whether the result would have been 20 dead or 20 living hostages … Statements made later by our drivers confirm that the terrorists were shouting to the army that they intended to shoot us.
"They [the army] did not begin their 'assault' until after they had been spotted by the terrorists who opened fire on them. I have no dispute with the Yemeni army's statement that once the shooting began they believed they had no choice but to act as quickly as possible … Blame, if blame must be assigned, can lie only with those who took us hostage."
However it started, the result was that three Britons and one Australian died, along with two of the kidnappers.
The political fall-out
SHORTLY after the shoot-out, the press attache at the Yemeni embassy in London phoned news organisations to tell them the hostages had been rescued. Some of the kidnappers had been killed and the remainder arrested, but unfortunately, three of the hostages had also died [a fourth died later from injuries].
Presented in this way, it suggested that the Yemenis - far from regarding the military operation as a disaster - considered it reasonably successful in the circumstances. Given that violent death in Yemen is by no means uncommon, that view might even have been accepted if the victims had been Yemenis and not foreigners.
The shock in Britain was undoubtedly made worse by the earlier observations in the press and on television that kidnappers in Yemen tended to be amiable rogues who meant no harm to their hostages. But the British government was also annoyed at the apparently off-hand way it had been treated. It appeared that the British ambassador in Sana'a had not been kept properly informed and that the Yemeni authorities had gone back on previous assurances that they would seek a peaceful solution.
One of the fundamental problems on the diplomatic front is the cultural gap between the governments of western countries (such as Britain) and Yemen. In the west, official information is precisely recorded, analysed and then released in a fairly disciplined manner. In Yemen, rumour and rhetoric tend to get in the way of facts. As journalists and others who visit the country rapidly discover, reliable facts are hard to find. Everyone claims to "know", but what they know can be entirely different from what the next person knows.
When the ambassador, Victor Henderson, met the Interior Minister in the hope of finding out precisely what had happened, the meeting proved curt, short and uninformative. The Yemeni ambassador to London, Dr Hussein al-Amri, was then summoned to the Foreign Office twice in the space of two days for what, in undiplomatic language, amounted to a stern talking-to.
This took British-Yemeni relations into a sensitive area, impinging on Yemen's sovereignty and right to control its own affairs, against Britain's entitlement to protection for its citizens. The outcome was that Yemen agreed to let British and American investigators into the country, but relations took another turn for the worse on January 2 when the Yemenis claimed they had been aware of a threat to British interests in Yemen. More complaints from London followed, because they had failed to inform the British authorities of any threat. At first the Yemeni claim was met with scepticism, because it seemed like an unsubtle attempt to deflect criticism over the army's handling of the hostage rescue.
But worse was to come. On January 6, the Interior Minister claimed that a number of Britons were under arrest as suspected terrorists. Once again there was scepticism, and the Yemenis themselves seemed in some doubt as to whether the British passports carried by the suspects were genuine. Those doubts soon vanished when the British relatives of the suspects protested at their arrest.
The first casualty of the diplomatic row was Yemen's application to join the British Commonwealth, which was originally submitted in 1997. On January 3, the junior Foreign Office minister, Tony Lloyd, said it would be rejected because Yemen "does not meet the entry criteria on good governance". The following day, Yemen said it would withdraw the application - adding that it had been encouraged to apply by the previous Conservative government.
Yemeni-British relations deteriorated further on January 5 when arguments broke out over the role of British investigators - particularly sensitive issue because Britain is the former colonial power in southern Yemen.
Abd al-Majid Zindani, one of the most outspoken figures in the opposition Islah party told al-Hayat newspaper: "We refuse any interference by foreigners in our legal system, whether they are from Britain, the United States or anywhere else ... It is an attack on our sovereignty." He continued: "If we open this door to foreigners they will push it wider open and could send us observers to monitor our administration and finances."
Later, Agence France Presse quoted the Interior Minister, General Hussein Arab, as saying that the British and American investigators were "not participating" either directly or indirectly in the inquiry into the deaths of the hostages. "The people from the FBI and Scotland Yard are only here to get the results of the inquiry by the Yemeni security services and to shed light on the crime."
On January 6, The Times reported that local security officials in Aden had told two of the four detectives from Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch to leave the city on the next available flight. However, it appeared that they had not been asked to leave the country.
At this stage, British and Yemeni authorities seem to have realised that the row was getting out of hand. The dispute involving the detectives was rapidly smoothed-over as a "bureaucratic hitch" and Britain insisted that it had not changed its views on Yemen's Commonwealth application. Publicly at least, everyone was co-operating.