Yemen Hostage Tragedy: When troops opened fire, the hostages were used as shields

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The Independent Online
THE SHOOT-OUT between the Yemeni hostage-takers and security forces wasgraphiclly described last night by survivors who told how their captors intentionally lined them up as human shields.

Forced to stand in a line, their hands above their heads, the Western hostages were placed on a raised bank between their captors and the guns of the encroaching security forces.

"We were told to line up, with our hands up, with bullets flying over our heads, to the sides, everywhere," Professor Eric Firkins, reportedly said.

"We weren't allowed to take cover. We were told to stand there. We couldn't move or we would get shot."

They were forced to stand there for two hours, unable to move backwards or forwards.

Another survivor Brian Smith, 52, a postal worker, added: "We were in the middle of a battle. I knew a stray bullet could kill anyone of us. It was just a question of luck. There was nothing we could do - just stand there."

As the soldiers got nearer, the kidnappers pulled their captives back - forcing them to carry their heavy machine guns and bazookas. As they did one of the hostages, Australian Andrew Thirsk, was hit in the leg and fellow tourist Margaret Whitehouse stopped to help him.

"A kidnapper wanted Margaret to to protect him but she kept trying to help Andrew," said her husband Laurence Whitehouse.

"She was kneeling beside him, talking to him and he was hit again. Then a bullet caught her in the leg and she said, "Bless me" which is the pet phrase she uses when she misses a tennis shot.

"I tried to move to her but another kidnapper clung onto me. Then I saw a bullet hit Margaret in the head. She was dead the instant it hit her."

Mr Whitehouse reportedly told how he then tried to grab the gun from the kidnapper who was holding him. As he twisted his wrist the gun went off.

"My shirt has two holes in it where the bullets passed through. I was very lucky. Another bullet grazed my cheek."

Speaking from the Movenpick Hotel in Aden, Professor Eric Firkins, another survivor, said: "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."

Mr Firkins, 55, from Croydon, south London., said a female hostage Ruth Williamson was shot in the back in front of him.

"She was such a sweet, gentle companionable girl," he said. "She was lying there on her back. Her face was as white as a sheet. She was executed in cold blood and shown no mercy."

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, Victor Henderson, the British Ambassador, met the Interior Minister, Maj-Gen Hussayn Mohammad 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 and Mr Firkins said they were in a group of 11 that had been separated from another group of five.

Mr Smith added: "The army approached us and the nearer they got, the more tense the situation in our group became.

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

The Foreign Office last night demanded a full explanation from the Yemeni Government as to why the security forces launched an assault.

But Brigadier Mohammad Saleh al-Turaiq, the chief of security in Aden province, insisted 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.