Parliament: Anti-terror expert appointed by Cook

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A TROUBLESHOOTING anti-terror expert is to be appointed by the Government to secure the safe release of British hostages abroad, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced yesterday.

The new post was unveiled by Mr Cook in the Commons as he delivered a sombre statement on recent kidnappings of tourists and an oil worker in the Yemen.

The death of three British tourists, killed in a shoot-out between terrorists and local security forces, together with the abduction on Saturday of John Brooke, had proved the need for "heightened vigilance" abroad, he said.

In response to the gruesome events of the last two weeks, Mr Cook announced that the police expert would travel wherever he was needed to offer foreign governments advice on their handling of hostage-taking.

The Foreign Office security consultant, or "kidnap tsar" as he was later dubbed, would spearhead a range of Government initiatives including a series of global seminars on hostage situations.

Holiday tour operators and travel industry chiefs would also be invited to the FO to discuss how advice to travellers on troublespots such as Yemen could be more widely distributed, Mr Cook said.

All British nationals in Yemen, who are believed to number 300, were being encouraged to re-register with the British embassy urgently.

Mr Cook revealed that a four-strong team of British hostage negotiators was working closely with the FBI to prepare a full account of the firefight that led to the deaths of the tourists on 29 December.

Some of the hostages have claimed that the Yemeni security forces fired first on the kidnappers, but confusion still surrounds the incident.

Mr Cook said that it would be wrong to prejudge the outcome of any inquiry but it should be made clear that the "primary responsibility" for the killings rested with the armed gang who seized the hostages in the first place.

"The testimony of the survivors confirms more forcefully than any member of the House that all the hostages conducted themselves with the greatest courage and concern for others," he said. The Foreign Secretary said that he had been given assurances by the Prime Minister of Yemen that no force would be used in an attempted release of Mr Brooke, without consultation with the FO.

"The safety of British nationals is our paramount concern," he said. "We can only succeed in securing their safety from terrorism by close international co-operation in defeating the terrorist."

He added: "Kidnapping is a crime. It is the same crime whether it is committed for financial gain or political reward. We are determined to protect the safety of our nationals and to be robust in condemning terrorism wherever it occurs."

Some MPs had expected Mr Cook to be knocked off-guard by the revelations by his former wife at the weekend that he was a serial adulterer who drank heavily and harboured a loathing of Gordon Brown and other cabinet colleagues.

However, the Foreign Secretary had already received the full support of the Prime Minister and was flanked by Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and Home Secretary, Jack Straw, throughout his speech. The shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, made no reference to the weekend allegations about Mr Cook's private life, but did attack the FO's handling of events in Yemen, including securing information and informing families.

To Labour shouts of "shame", Mr Howard welcomed the Government's condemnation of terrorism but added: "Do you have the faintest inkling how ill your words lie with the continuing release by the Government of those convicted of the most despicable terrorist offences without any progress being made on decommissioning?"

The reference to the Northern Ireland peace process was dismissed by Mr Cook, who said "those remarks were more damaging to him than they were damaging to us".

Earlier, a Downing Street spokesman repeated Mr Blair's enthusiastic backing.

"He is doing a superb job. He is a very effective Foreign Secretary," said the spokesman.

"He is highly regarded abroad ... doing a committed, professional job. He has a full agenda this week. He's getting on with it."