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Hostages Head to Yemen’s Capital

January 1, 1999

SAN`A, Yemen (AP) _ It was just a piece of luggage, carried by a porter into the elevator of an Aden hotel. Still, it unleashed a geyser of sorrow in former hostage Laurence Whitehouse, who lost his wife this week in a botched rescue attempt.

``That’s my wife’s,″ the 54-year-old teacher said tearfully, pointing to a bag.

Margaret Whitehouse was one of four tourists who died Tuesday when Yemeni troops tried to rescue 16 Westerners _ 12 Britons, two Americans and two Australians _ held hostage by Islamic militants. Two other hostages were wounded.

Her husband and nine other captives who survived the ordeal unscathed collected their belongings Thursday _ and in some cases those of dead loved ones _ in the hotel lobby. Then, they flew from southern Yemen to San`a, the capital in the north, where they were to spend a night before flying to Europe on Friday.

The bodies of the slain hostages were to be flown to Britain on Friday. The dead were identified as Britons Ruth Williamson, 34, Peter Rowe, 60, and Margaret Whitehouse, 52, as well as Andrew Thirsk, 35, of Sydney, Australia.

Two wounded hostages, an unidentified American woman with a pelvis wound and Claire Marston, Rowe’s wife who was shot in the shoulder, remained hospitalized in Aden.

Yemeni security officials interviewed each hostage in Aden. And Interior Minister Hussein Mohammed Arab insisted once again at a San`a news conference Thursday that security forces had moved in for a rescue only after kidnappers had begun killing hostages.

Arab said the kidnappers had given government negotiators just an hour to release two jailed Islamic Jihad leaders before they said they would start killing hostages. A Yemeni driver who was held with the hostages but escaped reported that the killings had begun, he said.

``The troops heard gunfire and intervened swiftly to save the hostages,″ he said.

Arab also said the group to which the kidnappers belonged, Islamic Jihad, was planning to bomb the British Consulate in Aden, a camp of American military experts, Aden International Airport, U.N. offices, churches and hotels.

Some former hostages have disputed the government’s statement that security forces intervened after kidnappers began killing captives. They say the kidnappers shot two hostages when they held back after being ordered to stand as human shields.

Whitehouse blamed the kidnappers for the deaths and injuries.

``The blame for this disaster, my wife’s death, must lie with the terrorists,″ he told Associated Press Television News. ``They took us off a peaceful journey, down a road while we were on holiday, enjoying the scenery of Yemen and meeting its people. ... They are to blame.″

Whitehouse recalled Thursday how his wife, Margaret, dropped to her knees to try to help the wounded Thirsk. He said a militant tried to use her as a shield, but she resisted, continuing to kneel beside Thirsk.

``Then a bullet caught her in the leg,″ Whitehouse told Britain’s Press Association. ``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. ... They wouldn’t let me go to her and she just lay there, bleeding in the dirt.″

British newspapers reported Friday that Whitehouse said Yemeni authorities told him to change part of his testimony that suggested government troops could have fired the shot that killed his wife.

A colonel from the Yemeni secret police told him during a formal interview to change his account of the death of his wife, removing from the statement his remark that the fatal bullet ``could have been anybody’s,″ the Daily Telegraph reported.

Tribesmen have kidnapped scores of foreigners to win economic concessions from the government, but they generally have been freed unharmed. This was the first time foreigners have been abducted by Islamic militants in Yemen. According to Yemeni officials, the kidnappers demanded the release of the two leaders and said they were retaliating for recent U.S. and British airstrikes on Iraq.

Meanwhile, four Germans kidnapped Dec. 7 by Yemeni tribesmen were released unharmed Wednesday and were expected to fly home Friday.

Update hourly