Killing of 3 Americans in Yemen seen as part of plan

Authorities suspect hatred of missionaries and U.S.

January 12, 2003|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JIBLA, Yemen - Early last year, Abed Abdul Razak Kamel and his wife visited doctors at the small American Baptist-run hospital here and asked for help having a baby. In a society that prizes large families, Kamel said his wife was beset with miscarriages.

But when Lee Hixon thinks back on what seemed to be a routine visit, he believes that his friends - Bill Koehn, shot in the stomach and face; Dr. Martha Myers, shot in the head and chest; Kathy Gariety, shot in the heart - were the victims in the first week of the new year of a calculated attack.

Kamel's decision to kill the hospital workers, either because they were Christian, because they were Americans - or both - appears to have been made with care and patience.

"The investigation is leaning in that direction," said Hixon, the assistant hospital administrator. "It was well planned."

Kamel returned to the hospital Dec. 30. He arrived about 6 a.m. when the doors opened and got right in because he carried a return pass from his first visit. Two and a half hours later he walked into an office and shot physician Myers, 57; hospital administrator Koehn, 60; and office worker Gariety, 53. Myers and Gariety died immediately. Koehn died a half-hour later as his wife held his hand.

Hixon, 48, is a religious man, and a stunned man. On any previous day, he would have been in the room with the three who died. But a new meeting schedule had taken effect that day, so he was in another office.

He recounts the whole affair almost in slow motion, dazed by what seems unfathomable: That decades of providing medical care to one of the poorest communities in one of the poorest countries in the world would somehow culminate in the carefully planned killing of his friends and the wounding of a pharmacist; that it happened one day before the Baptists turned control of the hospital over to Yemeni authorities after 35 years; that Koehn planned in a few months to pack his desk after 28 years and retire.

What seems clear is that the killings were part of a plan to attack people viewed as enemies of Islam. Authorities here have said Kamel was a follower of a young preacher named Ahmed Ali Jarallah. Jarallah is in prison, charged with fatally shooting the popular leftist politician Jarallah Omar just two days before Kamel opened fire in the hospital.

Although no one here has been able to prove a link between him and al-Qaida, Kamel demonstrated the patience that has been the hallmark of attacks by Osama bin Laden's network. When he surrendered, he said that he was striking out against missionaries seeking to convert Muslims and that he expected to go to heaven for his act.

Jibla is a four-hour drive from the capital, San`a, and sits on a mountain. Midway up is Jibla Hospital. It was opened by a Baptist missionary in the late 1960s and has been the focus of anger - and affection. During the 1991 war against Iraq, the hospital was the target of anti-American demonstrations.

Since the killings, the community has shown tremendous support for the hospital. The staff has also gone out of its way to show local people that it respects their faith and never intended to convert them.

But in Yemen conversion is still viewed as a crime and Christians are seen as nonbelievers, so it is impossible to wipe away underlying tensions.

As Hixon stood at the foot of Myers' and Koehn's graves, reminiscing about his lost friends, a local man walked up on the other side of the fence. With a smile, Mohammed Abdul Karim, 26, said: "Bill is sleeping. He was a very good man. ... Martha was a friend of the country."

Hixon also smiled. "They are with God," he said.

"Maybe," Abdul Karim replied.

Michael Slackman writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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