How the shifting sands of Yemen are causing confusion in Whitehall

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YEMEN, situated on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, has been one of the world's most strategically important places since the days of the spice trade. Always a hotbed of rumour and political intrigue, every twist in the current crisis of hostages and plots is again commanding close international attention.

Yesterday the story of five British detainees accused of terrorist activity came down to claim and counter claim between the Yemeni government and the representatives and families of those being held.

The British government was also directing its efforts to trying to secure the safe release of John Brooke, the latest hostage to be taken in the country.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have long accused Britain of being a centre for terrorist opposition to their regimes. Could they now have the proof they have been looking for?

Links established between the detainees, the hostage-taking group and a London-based organisation suggest this could prove to be so.

On the other hand, suspicion still exists that the Yemen government could be using the situation to side-step its responsibility for the bungled hostage rescue and subsequent deaths last month.

Of the detainees, one is said to have made a detailed confession of involvement in a plot to bomb British targets in Aden over Christmas. He has also allegedly confirmed links between the plot and the Islamic group led by Abu Hassan, responsible for the kidnapping of 16 Westerners which resulted in four being shot dead on 29 December.

But then there are claims by three of the men to the local British consul general that they had been tortured. Their families have maintained that none of them has had any involvement in terrorism.

Behind all this are the shifting sands of Middle East power-broking, with implications that include the campaign by Western governments against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and the Saudi dissident, Osama bin Laden.

Supporters and relatives of the detained men are claiming racism and incompetence against the Government's handling of their cases. If the claims of torture are upheld and the men are released, allegations that more could and should have been done for them sooner will intensify.

But if the men do go the trial and some or all are found guilty then the problems will double. Any found guilty would be condemned to death, and a huge campaign for their release would be certain among the Muslim community in Britain.

Britain's position would be badly damaged by the revelation that a plot to bomb British targets abroad had been organised in this country and involved British citizens, apparently protesting at the British involvement in the bombing of Iraq.

If links between the British men and the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, led by Abu Hassan, which carried out the kidnappings last month, were established then the Yemeni government could effectively deflect any criticism of its handling of the affair.

Samad Ahmed, 21, of Birmingham, said he had been hung upside down and beaten; Shahid Butt, 33, also of Birmingham, said he had been blindfolded, his feet beaten and a confession extracted; Mohsin Ghalain, 18, of London, reported he had been repeatedly hit during his first week in detention, and was said to be suffering from liver problems.

The claims are consistent with past human rights abuses reported in the country. Amnesty International, in its last report on Yemen in 1997, outlined the same torture techniques among a long list which also included electric shocks, burning with cigarettes and victims being walked on while lying naked on concrete.

All torture is theoretically banned under Yemeni law. The country is also a signatory to most human rights treaties.

The Amnesty report, however, stated: "Suspected political opponents to the government and critics of the state are frequently targeted for arbitrary arrest and administrative detention, which is invariably followed by lengthy incommunicado detention, during which detainees are denied access to families and lawyers. Such conditions have facilitated the systematic use of torture."

Against this is the claim from Yemeni authorities that Mr Ghalain had given a full confession at the weekend, allegedly admitting to being paid $2,000 (pounds 1,600) to bomb the British Consulate in Aden, the Anglican church there and the city's biggest tourist hotel.

He is also said to have admitted having two meetings with Abu Hassan. Security sources in Yemen say Mr Ghalain got explosives and weapons from Abu Hassan to carry out the campaign.

Four days after the British group were arrested, Abu Hassan's organisation carried out the kidnapping of the 16 tourists which ended so tragically. Yemeni government sources have said that the release of the British group was the main ransom demand.