Hostages tell of ordeal in the jungle

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The Independent Online
Sitting in their baggy clothes, pale and subdued at 7am on Sunday, they could have been four students feeling the effects of a good night out.

Only their shadowed, watchful eyes gave any clue that, for Daniel Start, William Oates, Annette van der Kolk and Anna McIvor, yesterday marked, instead, the end of a four-month kidnap ordeal, which saw two of their friends brutally murdered and - it emerged yesterday - came within minutes of costing them their own lives.

Foreign Office minister Jeremy Hanley revealed that following an earlier failed release attempt, the Government believed the British hostages' lives were hanging in the balance.

"They came very close to being killed once negotiations had broken down. There is no doubt that when they were rescued, it was not before time," Mr Hanley said.

The four Cambridge graduates' 129-day ordeal finally ended shortly after 6am yesterday when flight BA34 from Jakarta brought the British members of the original team of 11 young scientists back to Heathrow.

Escorted by Mr Hanley, Foreign Office officials and police, they conducted a brief reunion with their parents in a private room in Terminal One before meeting the press.

Looking pale and thin under the television lights, Annette van der Kolk, 21, and 20-year-old Anna McIvor - who witnessed the murders of their Indonesian friends - chose not to speak. None of the four has yet spoken extensively of the experiences, which are reported to have included malaria, sexual harassment and deep depression.

Mr Oates, 22, and Mr Start, 21, who spoke for all of them, said they were shattered from their experiences but were delighted to be back among family and friends.

There was something touchingly self-effacing and restrained in the two men's statements, in which they joked gamely about the British weather and the prospect of a traditional Sunday lunch.

But they were still patently affected by their ordeal, apparent when they described their despair and fear when a previous chance of release went wrong at the last minute. Mr Start told how on 8 May the hostages had believed they were to be set free, following extensive negotiations. But 10 minutes before they were to board a helicopter to freedom, they were informed by Kelly Kwalik - the leader of the Free Papua Movement rebels - that he had changed his mind.

"We all went back to the forest in tears. From then on there was no option but for the military to come in," Mr Start said.

In the subsequent shoot-out last Wednesday, when Indonesian troops stormed the separatists' stronghold in the isolated Irian Jaya province, two Indonesian hostages lost their lives. Witnessed by Ms McIvor, they were hacked to death by the rebels as they clashed with government forces during the rescue.

"We are hurt and in deep shock and sadness at the very tragic and vividly brutal death of our companions," Mr Start said.

Mr Oates touched upon the isolation felt by the four Britons and their Dutch and Indonesian friends, who made up the expedition of young scientists, during their captivity.

"We spent a long time sitting in that forest thinking about the things we missed," he said. They had all been "very, very lonely" but had been heartened by thinking of the people outside who were helping them.

He added that they had been treated "extremely well, especially by the local community who made many sacrifices to look after us".

All paid tribute to the actions of the Red Cross "who gave us hope when things were really, really down".

Mr Start said: "They came into the area on a daily basis in helicopters to very remote villages up in the mountains, sometimes in very dangerous and difficult weather, and held negotiations and talks with a very tricky bunch of people indeed who were armed and generally very threatening and frightening."

"It's great to be reunited with our families. It was their memories that kept us strong. It's a real culture shock after half a year literally in the Stone Age," Mr Start added.

Pleasure over their safe return was tempered, however, by the increasing pessimism over the fate of two Britons - Paul Wells and Keith Mangan - who have been missing in Kashmir since being kidnapped by rebel separatists last July.

Mr Hanley admitted yesterday that there had been "no proof of life" since August.

He insisted that the Foreign Office "hadn't given up hope" but said that it was seriously investigating reports that they may have been murdered late last year.