Yemen Hostage Tragedy: Kidnappers `used Britons as shields'

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH hostages who survived a bungled rescue attempt in Yemen claimed yesterday that government forces started the shooting that led to the deaths of four tourists.

They told how their fellow captives were used as human shields and shot in anger by the kidnappers as Yemeni soldiers stormed their hide-out against British government wishes.

Last night, the Foreign Office asked the Yemeni government to explain why its forces attempted to rescue the 16 hostages - 12 Britons, two Americans and two Australians - in spite of a request by Victor Henderson, the British ambassador, that no rescue attempt should be made. In more than 100 previous kidnappings in Yemen since 1992, no hostages had been killed.

Two of the surviving Britons, Professor Eric Firkins and Mr Brian Smith, recovering at the Movenpick Hotel in Aden, contradicted Yemeni government claims that security forces took action only after the kidnappers had killed two hostages. They said the government forces opened fire first, provoking a two-hour gun battle in which the terrorists used prisoners as human shields before shooting two in "revenge killings" as they fled.

"The worst time for me was that time when a barrel was pointed at my chest. I said, `No, no, no'. Miraculously, he [the gunman] went away... the army was just too close," said Professor Firkins, 55, from Croydon, south London. He said a female hostage was subsequently shot in the back of the neck and died in front of him.

The group was kidnapped on Monday when their convoy of five vehicles was halted by 18 Islamic Jihad militants from the Al-Fadl tribe near Mawdiyah, 175 miles south of the capital, Sanaa.

On Tuesday, Mr Henderson met the Interior Minister, General Hussein Mohammed Arab, and asked that no violence should be used. Within hours, however, more than 200 soldiers had taken up position and the kidnappers hide-out in al-Wadeaa had been stormed.

Mr Smith, 52, a postal worker from Peterborough, and Professor Firkins said they were in a group of 11 that had been separated from another group of five. They said the kidnappers began killing hostages only after the military opened fire.

Mr Smith said bullets were "whizzing" over their heads. "We were used as human shields," he said. "The army approached us and the nearer they got, the more tense the situation in our group became."

At one point, the kidnappers told the hostages to stand in open ground with their hands up. "We stood very bravely and even held our hands up," said Mr Smith. "Then we fell back and the army approached and there were the two killings.

"My colleagues and I and another woman fell behind an embankment and we held each others hands until the army got very close to us and we could surrender ourselves.

The British ambassador was hoping to meet the Yemeni Prime Minister and the Interior Minister last night to express British concern. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We expect a response with full details on what happened from both the Yemeni government and the authorities on the ground because the relatives [of the victims] deserve to know what happened."

However, Brigadier Mohammad Saleh al-Turaiq, the chief of security in Aden province, said the kidnappers - including a fugitive Egyptian terrorist named as Osama al-Masri - were the first to open fire. "The Egyptian [al- Masri] began shooting at the hostages, which forced our troops to storm the hide-out," he said.

Mr al-Turaiq said his forces were chasing some kidnappers who got away. The kidnappers were said to be in a group of 200 members of Islamic Jihad, based in a camp in south Yemen. They were demanding the release of their leader, Saleh Hadara al-Atwi, who was imprisoned two weeks ago during a crackdown on Islamic fundamentalist vigilantes who were imposing strict religious law on their community.