Soldiers fired first, say survivors of bungled hostage rescue

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The Independent Online
SURVIVORS OF the Yemeni kidnapping told yesterday how the government's security forces opened fire first during a bungled rescue, resulting in the death of four tourists.

In accounts that contrasted sharply with those issued by Yemeni officials, the survivors said they were used as human shields as a two-hour gun battle ensued.

One survivor, Laurence Whitehouse, a sixth form teacher from Hook, Hampshire, told how he watched as his wife, Margaret, was shot dead as she tried to help one of the wounded.

Mr Whitehouse, 54, was reported to have said: "I saw a bullet hit Margaret in the head. She was dead the instant it hit her. She never stood a chance. They wouldn't let me go to her and she lay there bleeding in the dirt."

Others told how Ruth Williamson, 34, who was among the youngest in the group, was killed as one of the kidnappers tried to escape.

Professor Eric Ferkins from Croydon, south London, said: "She had a gun put to her neck and was made to walk in front of the kidnapper. She must have been scared but she was so brave and dignified. After her murderer shot her in the back he just ran away."

Last night Britain and Australia said they would demand an explanation from the Yemeni government as to why the soldiers tried to storm the hide- out of the Islamic extremist kidnappers in al-Wadea, 175 miles south of the capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday.

Victor Henderson, the British ambassador, was due to meet the Yemeni Prime Minister and the Interior Minister last night to seek an explanation for the security forces' actions. The Yemenis had said earlier that they acted only after the kidnappers began killing hostages. Before the attack, Mr Henderson had insisted on no violence or rescue attempts.

Another survivor, Sue Mattocks, 43, a teacher from Ramsgate, Kent, said the group heard shooting at least an hour before the first hostage was killed. However, she said the Yemeni government was not to blame. "You cannot blame the Yemeni government. If the kidnappers had not snatched us then nobody would have been killed."

It was reported last night that at least three of the kidnappers were killed in the shoot-out with security forces.

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, said his government would "vigorously" pursue the Yemeni government to discover what led to the two-hour gun battle in which the Britons, Ms Williamson, Mrs Whitehouse, 52, and Peter Rowe, 60, a university maths lecturer, and the Australian Andrew Thirsk, 35, died. The US is to send an FBI team to investigate the killings.

Last night a group claiming to be behind the kidnapping blamed Yemeni forces for the deaths. The group, calling itself Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, said in a statement: "The deceitful Yemeni regime ... staged a comedy and claimed that our holy warriors had started killing the foreigners, so as to justify to the world its ugly action when its forces attacked the place where the hostages were being held to kill everybody."

The group indicated that its abduction of the Western tourists was to demand "an end to the aggression against Iraq and to oust US and British forces from the Gulf region".

Tension in the region eased slightly yesterday with the release of four Germans who had been held hostage since 6 December.