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Yemen Hostages Recall Ordeal

December 31, 1998

ADEN, Yemen (AP) _ When the shooting started, Margaret Whitehouse dropped to her knees to try to help a fellow hostage who was wounded.

One of the Islamic militants who had taken her and 15 other foreign tourists captive tried to use her as a shield, but she resisted, kneeling beside Australian hostage Andrew Colin Thirsk, who later died.

``Then a bullet caught her in the leg,″ Laurence Whitehouse said of his wife. ``I tried to move her, but another kidnapper clung on to me and kept the machine gun dug into my neck. Then 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 just lay there, bleeding in the dirt,″ he told Britain’s Press Association.

Laurence Whitehouse and the other survivors of the bloody rescue operation, which left four of the hostages dead, were trying to cope with the tragedy today, collecting luggage scattered in the abduction and recovering at an Aden hotel.

``That’s my wife’s,″ a tearful Whitehouse, a 54-year-old schoolteacher from Hampshire, England, said in the hotel elevator as a porter carried luggage to his room.

Another freed hostage, David Holmes of Britain, was visibly tense. ``No passports, no cameras, no money, nothing,″ he said in the hotel lobby, complaining that the luggage was missing some items the kidnappers stole before they retreated under army fire.

In the nearby Al-Jamhuriya Hospital, the bodies of the four slain hostages were examined by a U.S. Embassy doctor Wednesday night. They were being prepared to be transported out of the country.

Yemeni security officers arrived at the hotel today to interview the former hostages. The survivors were expected to fly home Friday.

The question of how the gunbattle began remained unclear as the victims’ governments began to seek an investigation into the incident.

Yemen says its security forces only opened fire ``in order to prevent further killings″ after the kidnappers had already started killing the hostages.

But some of the hostages have disputed that claim, saying the government forces opened fire first and the kidnappers reacted by using them as shields.

Yemeni officials said their forces killed three of the kidnappers and captured three others. They said the kidnappers belonged to Islamic Jihad, a group of 200 in south Yemen.

The kidnappers had seized the hostages to demand the release of two of their jailed leaders and to protest the recent U.S. and British airstrikes on Iraq, officials said.

Two wounded hostages _ an unidentified American woman and Claire Marston of Britain _ remained in the Aden hospital. Hospital officials and British diplomats said the two did not want to be interviewed.

Britain confirmed that three of its nationals were slain _ Ruth Williamson, 34, Mrs. Whitehouse, and Peter Rowe, a 60-year-old math lecturer from Durham University. The fourth person killed was Thirsk, 35, of Sydney.

Malcolm and Susan Thirsk, the parents of the dead Australian, said they were not bitter about the bungled rescue attempt.

``We’re always going to wish they’d done something different ... We’re not bitter, but we wish it had been another way,″ Thirsk’s father told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Meanwhile, Australia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia was headed to Yemen for a ``full and thorough investigation″ into the killings.

One survivors, 55-year-old Eric Firkins of Croydon, England, said Wednesday that the abductors, armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers, were leading the hostages in two groups to a mountain hideout. Yemeni soldiers approached. ``Then we heard the gunfire,″ he said.

When the shooting began in earnest, the kidnappers forced their captives to stand in front with their hands in the air, Firkins and other hostages said.

As the kidnappers fled amid the shooting, they shot dead two hostages in revenge, they said.

This was the first time Islamic militants had abducted foreigners.

Tribesmen have kidnapped scores of foreigners in the past to win economic concessions from the government, but have usually freed them safely. Four Germans kidnapped by Yemeni tribesmen on Dec. 7 were freed unharmed on Wednesday.

Update hourly