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Saudis free Westerners from bombing gallows

London, Aug. 8 (Reuters): Five Britons, a Canadian and a Belgian convicted of carrying out a wave of bombings in Saudi Arabia in 2000 and early 2001 were freed by the Gulf state today.

Two of the men had been sentenced to death and, if the sentences had been ratified by King Fahd, faced public beheading. The others had been given lengthy prison sentences.

“They have been granted clemency,” lawyer Salah al-Hejailan said by telephone.

After flying into London’s Heathrow airport, the British men were taken off for debriefing by foreign office officials and a reunion with their families.

“We are delighted to be home. We would like to thank everyone for their support,” they said in a statement issued by the foreign office on their behalf. “We hope everyone will understand we now need some time and space with our families. We are not yet ready to speak to the media. We will be in touch.”

The men were accused of carrying out several bombings in Saudi Arabia, including a November 17, 2000, attack which killed Briton Christopher Rodway. Several other Western expatriates working in the oil-rich kingdom were wounded in separate attacks. Saudi authorities blamed the bombings on a turf war over illegal but lucrative alcohol sales. Families of the jailed men have said local Islamic militants were responsible.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw welcomed the men’s release at the end of months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

“I greatly welcome the release of British citizens from custody in Saudi Arabia. It has obviously been a very difficult time for the men and for their families,” he said.

Human rights pressure group Amnesty International urged the British government to take a tougher line in future. “It is now extremely important that the British government reconsiders its timid “constructive engagement” line with Saudi Arabia and begins to speak out forcefully about wide scale human rights violations in the kingdom,” UK director Kate Allen said.

Two of the accused — Briton Alexander “Sandy” Mitchell and Canadian William Sampson — were shown on Saudi television in February 2001, confessing to attacks in the capital Riyadh.

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