Hostages 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 summer.

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.