Hostages deny pressure to change story

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SURVIVORS OF the Yemen hostage shoot-out returned last night for an emotional reunion with relatives and tried to defuse the diplomatic row between Britain and Yemen over the bungled rescue operation.

The 10 Britons and one Australian, who emerged uninjured from the battle in which four were killed, arrived in Gatwick yesterday and, after meeting loved ones, were ushered to meet more than 90 press and television reporters at the nearby Hilton Hotel.

Before facing the media three of the survivors, Sue Mattocks, Brian Smith and David Holmes, had a meeting with the Foreign Office minister Joyce Quin.

Contrary to earlier reports from Yemen that secret police had tampered with statements, the three strenuously denied that there was any overt pressure by the authorities to absolve the rescue force of blame.

Yemeni officials have insisted that troops stormed the kidnappers' desert hide-out on Tuesday because the terrorists had begun killing theirhostages. This claim was originally reported to have been disputed by hostages.

Last night's comments willhelp to defuse the row which has already seen the Yemeni Ambassador twice called into the Foreign Office to explain the contradictory rescue reports. The latest meeting was held yesterday afternoon.

The hostages were askedlast night about reports that Yemeni security chiefs had failed to alert British diplomats about intelligence received days before the kidnapping that Islamic extremists were planning an attack on British targets.

One Yemeni official is reported to have said that the intelligence indicated a "specific threat against a British target, which it said would take place imminently".

If the alert had been raised, the tour group may have been diverted from Abyan province, where the kidnapping took place.

The hostages said they were unaware of such reports.

Asked if Yemeni secret police had coerced them to alter statements, Mr Holmes said he had not even been required to give one.

Mrs Mattocks said: "We were asked to make a detailed statement by the Yemeni authorities. We had lots of time. Nobody put any pressure on me to change my statement or say anything that was not true."

Tanned and apparently healthy after their ordeal, the three Britons spoke movingly, and sometimes with dry humour, of their capture and the subsequent tragedy.

Mr Holmes likened the kidnap at one point to a "surreal" film in which the bandit leader seemed to resemble a Hollywood villain. "When the pick- up stopped in front of the vehicle in which I was and the bandits leapt out, it was almost like a film scenario. The leading bandit could have come out of Hollywood, because he had long bushy hair and deep features and a black complexion.

"He bundled our driver out, and in the process injured him, and then he got into the cab. He was nervous and when he started to get the vehicle going, crashed the gears.

"It was surreal, it was almost as though one was not a part of it, one was looking at it, so there wasn't any panicking as far as we were concerned.

"Another bandit got inside the vehicle with a gun pointing at us and we waved at the gun and he got out and climbed onto the roof. We smiled at the bandit who was sitting next to us and he said it would be alright. The whole thing veered from the tragic to the bizarre all the time."

The group had left the Yemeni capital of Sanaa yesterday morning for a flight to Paris on the first leg back. They were seen off by the British Ambassador, Yemen's Cultural Minister, other political figures and members of human rights groups. Young girls in national costume presented the group with roses before their departure, while other local people held banners saying, "We're sorry".

Claire Marston, the British woman who was shot in the shoulder and hip after seeing her husband killed, remained in hospital.

As the survivors made their way home, an American FBI team and four Scotland Yard detectives, three anti-terrorist specialists and one from the organised crime group, arrived in Yemen.

A Scotland Yard spokesman said the Foreign Office had asked the detectives to investigate the murders and liaise with the Yemeni authorities.

The officers are investigating the Islamic group believed to have been behind the kidnap, and any links it has with other similar organisations round the world.

They were due to meet Yemen's Interior Minister soon after arrival and would comb the kidnap area for clues.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts are ongoing. After the second meeting at the Foreign Office yesterday, where Ms Quin met the Ambassador Dr Hussein Al-Amri to express British "dissatisfaction", sources said the meeting had been called because of continuing disquiet over the shoot-out.

Ms Quin said: "The whole nation is appalled by the deaths and injuries inflicted on the innocent victims of this week's horrific kidnap in Yemen.

"Our efforts continue unabated to establish precisely what happened, and to bring those responsible for this atrocious crime to justice."