ends in death
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in The Guardian,
30 December 1998
THREE British tourists and one Australian were shot dead yesterday
at their kidnappers' hide-out in Yemen when security forces stormed the site in a
disastrous end to the country's worst hostage crisis.
Twelve other captives, including nine Britons, were freed
but two were injured. Two kidnappers also died. The names of the tourists were not
released last night as next-of-kin were still being informed.
According to Yemeni security sources, the kidnappers had
links with Islamic extremists. A spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in London claimed the
casualties were murdered by the kidnappers before the troops moved in.
'I think that when the security forces got to the place,
the kidnappers started to kill some of the hostages,' the spokesman said. 'When the
security forces intervened, there were clashes and some of the other hostages were
released. Four kidnappers were arrested.' The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said last
night that three Britons and an Australian were killed.
'I am deeply shocked at the news of the casualties
suffered by the group of tourists abducted yesterday in Yemen,' he said. 'I am very sorry
to confirm that three of the British tourists have been killed, and others injured.' In
light of the incident, 'British nationals should not attempt to travel to Yemen unless
their business is essential, and any British visitors still there should leave'.
An official at the British embassy in the capital, Sana'a,
said: 'Our priority is to help the hostages now they have been released.' She was unable
to give information about their condition.
Seven of the uninjured hostages were last night at the
Moevenpick Hotel in Aden. David Pearce, deputy head of mission in Sana'a, said: 'They are
in a state of severe shock. They are uninjured but very tired, very stunned and in need of
a good meal, a good rest and someone to talk to. They have been through an awful
experience.' The 12 Britons, including six women, were among 16 holidaymakers seized when
the kidnappers, armed with Kalashnikovs and bazookas, held up their five-vehicle convoy on
the road from Habban to Aden on Monday.
Reports said shots were fired at the scene but no one was
hurt and the lead vehicle escaped to raise the alarm.
The hostages were taken to a hideout at al-Wadea'a, 250
miles south of the capital, where more than 200 government troops later surrounded them.
Initially there were high hopes that the kidnapping would
end peacefully - as has always happened. The governor of Abyan province, Ahmad Ali Mohsen,
spoke to leaders of the al-Fadli tribe, to which the kidnappers were believed to belong.
Soon afterwards, however, Yemeni security sources began to
hint that this was not the usual tribal kidnap, with demands for roads, electricity,
schools and basic local facilities. They suggested that the kidnappers were Islamic
extremists seeking the release of their leader, Salih Haidara al-Atwi, who was arrested
with another man two weeks ago in a crackdown on Islamic vigilantes.
Little information has emerged about how the tragedy
happened. In the north-eastern province of Marib, where four German tourists are being
held, a similar siege has gone on for three weeks, with reports of some firing and
numerous arrests, but no harm to the hostages.
It is unclear who fired first in yesterday's shoot-out.
The official Yemeni version is that the kidnappers killed some of hostages, prompting the
troops to begin their rescue. The Yemeni government also maintains that these were not the
usual tribal bandits who treat their captives well; they were 'politically motivated',
probably linked to Islamic militants.
Conventional tribal kidnappings are fairly rare in
southern Yemen, and Islamic extremists, some of them supporters of Osama bin Laden, are
known to be active in Abyan, where the kidnapping took place.
Another possibility is that the kidnapping went
disastrously wrong when someone on one side or other panicked. It was the largest
kidnapping Yemen has known and came only a few months after the death penalty for was
introduced for hostage-taking. Kidnapping has been on the increase for several years,
probably because growing numbers of tourists and foreign workers provide more
The 12 Britons were in a group of tourists travelling with
a British company, Explore Worldwide.
The British ambassador, Victor Henderson, said the road
where they were snatched was not especially dangerous. 'Our travel advice, which the
Foreign Office issues, refers to a random risk of kidnapping anywhere in Yemen.
Putting this in the context of some 60,000 tourists a
year, a couple of dozen people have been kidnapped every year for the last four or five
years,' he said.