Detectives "told to quit Yemen on next flight"

Detectives "told to quit Yemen on next flight"

by Brian Whitakerand Vikram Dodd

Originally published in The Guardian, 6 January 1999

TWO Scotland Yard detectives investigating the deaths of four Western hostages kidnapped in Yemen have been told to leave the country, it was reported last night.

In what is likely to be seen as a snub to Britain, a representative of the head of security in the south Yeman city of Aden told British officials that the anti-terrorist officers should leave 'on the first available flight'.

Scotland Yard sent four detectives to Yemen at the request of the Foreign Office. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has also sent agents.

Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office said last night that they did not know whether the reports were true.

Meanwhile it emerged that the Jihad organisation that kidnapped the 16 Western tourists last week was to have been absorbed into the Yemeni army to curb its activities. Sources say the kidnapping occurred when the agreement collapsed.

Jihad has been causing trouble in southern Yemen for more than six years. It runs a military training camp at Huttat, in the Maraqisha mountains of Abyan province, which has links with Osama bin Laden and other extremist groups.

The Yemeni authorities have been trying to close the camp. Last May they attacked it with heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, without success.

After the US embassy bombings last summer they came under increased pressure from Washington to eradicate Islamist elements and decided to try to close the camp by negotiation.

Two starkly opposed views of the kidnapping have emerged in Yemen. One, encouraged by the government, links it strongly to Mr Bin Laden and sees it as a reprisal for the US and British bombing of Iraq last month. But non-governmental sources insist that it was primarily the result of a local quarrel with the Yemeni authorities over the closure of the Huttat camp.

The plan to absorb Jihad terrorists into the armed forces followed a common Yemeni tactic for controlling opposition elements: incorporating them into the system. The Jihad leader of the early 1990s, Tariq al-Fadli, was appointed to the upper house of parliament and joined the ruling party. He was also allowed to resume his tribal role as Sultan of Abyan.

In November, according to the Yemeni weekly al-Umma, Jihad issued a list of 28 demands in return for evacuating the camp. These included the provision of basic services such as water and electricity in the surrounding region.

More controversially, they also demanded that Arab veterans of the Afghan war living in Yemen should be granted political asylum. This would have been difficult for the government to accept because many are wanted for terrorist crimes.

One of Mr Bin Laden's assistants visited the camp in early December. A Yemeni press report said he had gone there to resolve a dispute, which may have been about the terms for the camp's surrender.

Shortly afterwards there seemed to be an agreement to vacate the camp and integrate Jihad into the army. But this broke down almost immediately, resulting in a clash between Jihad and the security forces on December 18.

Among those arrested was Salih Haidara al-Atawi, a sheikh from al-Husnin, Lower Abyan, whose release was demanded by the kidnappers.

On December 23, according to the interior minister, General Hussein al-Arab, a Jihad vehicle packed with weapons was stopped in Aden. The occupants allegedly intended to attack the British consulate, a United Nations office and the homes of American officers working to clear landmines from southern Yemen.

The latest information about the kidnappers, who numbered at least 19, indicates that they were a mixture of local tribal elements and foreigners.

One of those killed was a taxi driver from a nearby village, another was a Yemeni veteran of the Afghan war, and the third was an Egyptian terrorist sought by the authorities in Cairo.