Austrian hostage says feared execution in Yemen

VIENNA/HELSINKI Thu May 16, 2013 10:02am EDT

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VIENNA/HELSINKI (Reuters) - An Austrian man held hostage for five months in Yemen said he was kept in permanent darkness in a room too small to stand in and was forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint.

Weeks into his captivity, Dominik Neubaur told Austrian magazine News, he was taken out for what he thought would be his execution - but he believed he was spared after he recited verses from the Koran.

"I heard a weapon being loaded and felt its muzzle on the back of my head," Neubaur said in his first interview since his release a week ago.

The 26-year-old student of Arabic and a Finnish couple were kidnapped by tribesmen in Sanaa on December 21, and were later sold to al Qaeda, according to the Yemeni government. The three were freed on May 9.

The Austrian said he did not know how his release had come about. Both Austria and Finland have denied paying a ransom.

The three hostages disappeared from view until a video appeared on YouTube in February showing Neubaur with a rifle pointed at his head, saying he would be killed if a ransom was not paid to a Yemeni tribe within a week.

Neubaur said he believed he was taken out to be executed when that deadline expired, but the kidnappers did not go through with it.

The Finnish couple, Atte and Leila Kaleva, told journalists in Helsinki on Thursday they were separated from Neubaur for around five weeks and were treated well.

Both said their military background, which their captors probably never discovered, helped them cope.

"We did not experience any violence, but the threat of it was there," said Atte Kaleva, a Finnish soldier who was on leave from the army to study Arabic. His wife is an army reservist.

He too was filmed in a video similar to Neubaur's, but did not know why his captors had not released it.

The Kalevas said they ate the same food and drank the same water as their captors.

Neubaur said he was given dirty water to drink and little more than rice to eat, and his hands and feet were bound with cables.

"It was a tiny room, divided by bedsheets. The Finns were in one corner and I was in the other. In between, I saw, was our guard - armed," he said.

Neubaur said the kidnap, which took place in an electronics store, appeared to be unplanned.

The kidnappers' car was so small that one had to sit on his lap, holding a weapon to his head, he said. The kidnappers had also not brought anything to tie up or blindfold the captives, he added.

(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan and Terhi Kinnunen; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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