NEW YORK (Reuters) - As volleys of gunfire rang out across the desert, the kidnapper stared at his captives and said, “It’s goodbye to you all.”
Margaret Thompson, an American tourist held at gunpoint, wasn’t sure what would happen next.
“I hoped it meant they were getting ready to release us,” she testified on Tuesday at the U.S. terror trial of former London cleric Abu Hamza. “But I feared it meant we were all going to die.”
Her harrowing account of the kidnapping by Yemeni militants in 1998 transfixed a federal jury in New York, where Abu Hamza is charged with providing the kidnappers with advice and a satellite phone.
The one-eyed, handless imam is also accused of seeking to set up a jihadist training camp in Oregon and of sending followers and money to al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
His lawyers claim he acted as a intermediary during the kidnapping to try to negotiate the hostages’ release. They have also said he did not commit any crimes and is being prosecuted based on his controversial views.
Prosecutors plan to call their final witness on Wednesday: Mary Quin, another hostage, who interviewed Abu Hamza at his north London mosque nearly two years after the kidnapping about his alleged involvement.
Abu Hamza is expected to take the stand in his own defense shortly after Quin testifies.
During her testimony, Thompson described what occurred on December 28, 1998 to the group of Western tourists.
The group’s convoy was forced to stop on a highway in southern Yemen when armed men blocked the road and commandeered the vehicles, Thompson said.
The tourists, mostly Britons, were driven to a remote area, where Thompson saw one of the kidnappers holding aloft what appeared to be a laptop computer. Prosecutors later showed the jury a photograph of the satellite phone Abu Hamza supposedly provided to the kidnappers, which looked like a laptop.
The militants said they would use the hostages in a prisoner exchange and seemed particularly interested in whether any were American, Thompson said. Frightened that she might become a target, she did not reveal her nationality.
“You know why you’re here,” one of the men said in English, Thompson testified. When one tourist asked why, the man replied, “It’s not your fault your countries bombed Iraq,” according to Thompson.
The Yemeni military launched a rescue operation the following day. As bullets whizzed by, the kidnappers used the hostages as human shields, lying behind their captives and firing between the tourists’ legs, Thompson said.
She was shot in the leg, shattering her femur, an injury that left her with a noticeable limp. Others were not so lucky, she said - three Britons and an Australian were killed during the gun battle.
Abu Hamza, 56, was convicted and served several years in prison in the United Kingdom for inciting violence with his sermons at a north London mosque. He faces a life sentence if convicted at the U.S. trial.
The Egyptian-born preacher, also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, lost an eye and both hands in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Editing by Noeleen Walder and Eric Walsh