UK tourists were used as shields in Yemen

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The Independent Online

Relatives of the four British tourists kidnapped and killed in Yemen wept as they were told at Westminster Coroners' Court yesterday how the hostages were used as shields.

Relatives of the four British tourists kidnapped and killed in Yemen wept as they were told at Westminster Coroners' Court yesterday how the hostages were used as shields.

Andrew Thirsk, 35, Margaret Whitehouse, 52, Edward Rowe, 60, and Ruth Williamson, 34, died in a bungled rescue attempt in which three kidnappers were also killed.

They had been touring Yemen last December when they were snatched by a small, radical Muslim group, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. When 200 government troops surrounded them, the hostages were lined up in front of their captors.

Mrs Whitehouse was hit by bullets fired by Yemeni troops as she tended Mr Thirsk, who was slumped injured by her side. Miss Williamson and Dr Rowe were shot dead by one of the hostage-takers as they stood with their arms in the air.

The inquest was told some of the group of 16 hostages tried to restrain the kidnappers.

Relatives of the dead and injured sobbed as details of the gun battle which happened a day after the hostages were seized, were outlined before the coroner, Dr Paul Knapman. Detective Sergeant Kevin O'Shea told the inquests the group was driven to a remote camp where the kidnappers were preparing to fight off soldiers. When asked why they had been taken hostage, the travellers were told "it was not your fault that your country has bombed Iraq" and that friends of the kidnappers were being tortured in prison.

The tourists were fed and made to sleep in a line in their sleeping bags before being marched to a nearby ravine the next day.

Discussions with Yemeni dignitaries failed to secure their release and the hostages were made to stand in two groups on mounds between the kidnappers and approaching Yemeni forces. One hostage was then asked to contact the British embassy via a satellite phone but did not know the required access numbers.

Sergeant O'Shea said: "The kidnappers began shooting at the Yemeni soldiers. They were using the hostages in the smaller group as shields on top of one of the mounds, with their arms on their heads."

Mrs Whitehouse's husband, Laurence, saw her being hit by bullets fired by the soldiers and then shot again in the back by one of the kidnappers.

The court was told how Mr Whitehouse then leapt on to one of the kidnappers, crying: "You've killed my wife. You've killed my wife."

Some kidnappers were shot and a number of the tourists managed to escape during the battle, Sergeant O'Shea said.

Miss Williamson and Dr Rowe, also being used asshields, were shot by a kidnapper known to the travellers as "Grey Shirt".

Dr Rowe, from Durham, was a university lecturer, Miss Williamson was a development and training consultant at an NHS Trust in Edinburgh and Mrs Whitehouse was a primary school teacher from Hook, Hampshire. Mr Thirsk was from Guildford, Surrey but lived in Sydney.

Dr Knapman recorded a verdict of unlawful killing of all four victims.

After the hearing, Mr Whitehouse, 55, a teacher, said: "I cry every day. It is terrible to recall it all. I have had a lot of support from my friends and relatives but every day when I come home from work there is a gap in my life.

"I am proud that Margaret died in trying to help Andrew."

The couple had been married for 30 years.

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