Cook optimistic over nurses' fate after meeting with Saudi minister

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Robin Cook last night emerged from a meeting with his Saudi counterpart, saying that his `humanitarian plea' over the case of the two British nurses facing murder charges in Saudi Arabia had been `heard with sympathy'.

Earlier, it was revealed that more than $1m in `blood money' had been stumped up, perhaps ironically, by the British arms industry. Steve Boggan in London and David Usborne in New York report.

The crisis between Britain and Saudi Arabia over the fate of two British nurses accused of the murder of a colleague appeared to have eased last night after the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, voiced optimism that they may be spared sentences of a flogging in one case and possible public beheading for the other.

Mr Cook, attending a United Nations meeting in New York, said he was "more hopeful" about the plight of the nurses after a 15-minute meeting with Prince Saud al-Faisal, his counterpart from Saudi Arabia. However, he received no definite assurances of clemency from the Prince.

"I made a humanitarian plea this afternoon and it was heard with sympathy," Mr Cook said. "I am now more hopeful than I was before this meeting that we will be able to achieve a humane outcome. Prince Saud made it clear there is some way to go on the legal proceedings. But he understood and appreciated the depth of concern that I was conveying."

There was outrage earlier this week, when it emerged that a sentence of 500 lashes had been handed down by the Saudi courts in the case of Lucille McLauchlan, 31. Reports that the second nurse, Deborah Parry, 38, has been sentenced to death by decapitation have not been formally confirmed.

Mr Cook said his optimism was based, in part, on progress being made towards a financial settlement, whereby the nurses would be pay a sum of pounds 750,000 to the the family of the murder victim. In return, lawyers for the family would formally agree to clemency being granted to the two accused. He added, however, that he also drew some cheer from his talks, "because I was heard with great sympathy and courtesy and an appreciation of the concern in Britain".

There remains some confusion over whether the blood money deal has already been struck or if it is still under negotiation. On this Mr Cook, suggested that the latter was true. "We are pursuing the issue of settlement," he said, adding: "My understanding is that there is no final settlement as yet."

Earlier, The Independent learnt that British armaments manufacturers have pledged the "blood money" that would save the life of Ms Parry, who faces public beheading if found guilty of murdering Yvonne Gilford, 55, at the King Fahd Military Medical Centre in Dhahran last December. A source close to the nurses' campaign said: "They [the arms makers] were very quick to come forward with offers and those offers have been relayed to the Foreign Office. To them, pounds 750,000 is peanuts."

Foreign Office sources said last night that the pounds 750,000 being demanded by the victim's brother, Frank, 59, was in place before Mr Cook met Prince Saud. It is understood that British Aerospace, the largest beneficiary of defence contracts between Britain and Saudi, is the lead donor.

Britain's arms trade with Saudi Arabia is worth more than pounds 2bn a year, mainly because of a series of huge arms deals initiated in the Eighties by Margaret Thatcher. One of them, the Al-Yamamah II contract, remains, at pounds 20bn, the world's largest arms deal.