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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 02:26 GMT 03:26 UK

World: Middle East

Yemen kidnappers sentenced to death

Two of the defendants appear relaxed during the trial

Three Islamic militants have been sentenced to death in Yemen for their part in the kidnap and murder of three Britons and one Australian last year.

The BBC's Rachel Payne: "The executions may not take place"
Zein Al-Abidine al-Mihdar and Abdullah Saleh al-Junaidy, from Yemen, and Saleh Abu Huraira, an Algerian, face execution.

Ahmed Mohammed Atif was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while his brother, Saad Mohammed Atif, was cleared of all charges.

Laurence Whitehouse: "No amount of punishment can recompense me for my sad loss"
But teacher Laurence Whitehouse, whose wife Margaret was among the British victims, said he disagreed with the sentences, adding that he had hoped for long prison sentences instead.

"Margaret and I were both opposed to death penalties. We think it is immoral. No one has the right to take anyone else's lives," he said.

The UK Foreign Office said it could not comment on a case under appeal, adding that it was important the families of those who died "received justice".

Killing controversy

The sentences were passed in Zinjibar, south Yemen, where the men arrived at court in armoured cars escorted by more than 200 policemen armed with AK-47 rifles.

In total, 13 men were charged with abduction, murder and forming a Muslim extremist group, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, with the intention of threatening Yemen's security.

Only four of the gang, including the leader, Abu Huraira, have so far been captured.

[ image: More than 100 westerners have been kidnapped in Yemen]
More than 100 westerners have been kidnapped in Yemen
The four tourists who died were part of a group of 16 people abducted while on a sightseeing tour in south Yemen last December.

Britons Margaret Whitehouse, 52, Ruth Williamson, 34, and Peter Rowe, 60, and Australian, Andrew Thirsk, 35 were killed by their captors as Yemeni security forces tried to free them.

The Yemeni Government maintains the kidnappers started shooting the tourists before the attempt to free them began, but eyewitnesses contradict this version of events.

Some tourists and the kidnappers say the killing started during a bungled rescue attempt and more effort should have been made to negotiate the hostages' release.

'Dialogue with bullets'

Al-Mihdar is the only member of the gang to have confessed to the charges.

Speaking before the death sentence was passed, he called on Arabs to rise up against western powers, saying: "The only dialogue should be with bullets."

Al-Junaidy and Abu Huraira admitted kidnapping - which has been a capital crime in Yemen since last August - but denied murdering the tourists and said they would only kill Americans.

The condemned men have the right to an automatic appeal.

If it fails, they face execution by firing squad, although it is unlikely that the sentences will be carried out, because of fears of extremist reprisals.

Westerners' trial postponed

Yemeni prosecutors have attempted to link the gang to London-based Islamic fundamentalist Abu Hamza al-Masri, who they believe may have co-ordinated kidnapping and murders.

He reacted to the death sentences by calling for the overthrow of the Yemeni Government.

Prosecutors have also attempted to connect the kidnappers to 10 British and French Muslims, who were arrested in Yemen on terrorist charges last December.

Their trial in the port city of Aden was due to reconvene on Wednesday, but it has been postponed until Thursday following the death sentences in Zinjibar.

Spokesman for the eight Britons, Rashad Yaqoob, expressed concern about the death sentences, saying: "Though justice appears to be seen to be done, the reality on the ground is quite a different picture."

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