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South Lakes pensioner in hotel kidnap terror
A PENSIONER was kidnapped by a gang of thieves preying on frail tourists for their top-of-the-range cars.
Widower John Owens says he was attacked at the door of his hotel room in Brussels, Belgium.
The 75-year-old says he was dragged outside, beaten with an iron bar and ordered to give up his car keys – even though he did not have a vehicle.
Then he was driven around and dumped by a roadside with no money or telephone.
He is now safely back at his home in Kendal, but his ordeal has prompted a warning from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about a surge in car-jacking incidents.
A spokesman said it was now part of their specific travel advice for British visitors to Brussels.
He said: “Car jacking, especially of up-market vehicles, is a risk. There have been several armed robberies and express kidnappings on or around the motorways in Brussels – particularly at night. The perpetrators have generally been gangs with eastern European connections.”
The Foreign Office warns that vehicles have been flagged down and drivers kidnapped. Other incidents have involved victims being robbed or taken under force to the nearest cash till.
Mr Owens said he was relieved to be safely home in Kendal after his ordeal which came at the end of a 42-night stay in Cyprus to ease a long-standing heart condition.
He suffered a suspected heart attack on the plane home and was stretchered off the flight at Brussels Airport and rushed to hospital.
When he was released from hospital to a Brussels hotel he said he was confronted at the door of his room and later beaten with an iron bar and threatened for his car keys – and then dumped by a roadside with no money or phone.
To complete the drama, concerned neighbours said they reported him missing to Cumbria Police when he failed to arrive at his Collin Road home – and Interpol were alerted to his disappearance.
Mr Owens suspects that the Brussels muggers watched him enter the hotel from the car park and, seeing that he was frail and believing he had a car, followed him in via a back door fire exit.
Belgian Police are investigating and the British Embassy has confirmed it has taken up the matter with local authorities.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London also said Brussels had seen a number of extreme crimes involving tourists being ‘car-jacked’.
Mr Owens – who did not have a car or any money with him – has been left on crutches by the attack, which aggravated a long-standing ankle injury.
“Everyone just can’t believe it. I certainly won’t be going back to Brussels again,” said the retired bus inspector.
“Since I’ve been home, I’ve been very nervy and don’t want to see any violence on television.”
The grandfather was on the way home from a £750 winter break to Cyprus after honouring a long-standing tradition of escaping the Cumbrian winter with his wife Nora, who died in December 2011. But he was crippled by severe chest pains on the flight home.
He has a history of angina and an irregular heart beat, despite saying he never smoked or drank and retired from work due to ill health.
The flight was diverted to Brussels, where he was stretchered off the plane after a doctor found the oxygen level in his blood dangerously low.
Released from hospital late the next day, he had to stay overnight to catch a flight the next day and booked into an Ibis Budget Hotel near the airport.
Mr Owens said he had only been in his room for 45 minutes when there was a knock at the door, which he thought was a member of staff.
Opening the door, Mr Owens said he was met by three ‘dodgy looking’ men in their 30s, who grabbed him and demanded his car keys in broken English.
Mr Owens said: “I was telling them I haven’t got a car but they wouldn’t have it. I was petrified. They said: ‘Car keys! Car keys!’ and then pulled me out of the door. The next thing I remember was being dragged down the back stairs in the pitch black and being shouted at!”
He said the gang hit him half a dozen times with a three feet long metal bar, cutting his head, and he was too terrified to shout for help. They bundled him into their car but when they realised he did not have car keys or money, dumped him by the side of the road.
He was picked up by police after motorists reported him unable to walk by the roadside.
At the police station where Mr Owens made a statement, he said he was told there had been other incidents where elderly tourists staying near the airport had their car keys forcibly stolen by a gang wanting vehicles.
Reviews on travel website TripAdvisor show other tourists in the city complaining of having entire hotel rooms ransacked.
Now back at home, he has praised neighbours and friends who have gone out of their way to help him ‘morning, noon and night’.
Martha Meeze, of VisitBrussels, said violent incidents were extremely rare, with surveys showing that 86 per cent of visitors to Belgium felt safe.
“We would certainly say this is not the usual experience of British tourists in Brussels,” said Ms Meeze.
A hotel spokesperson said: "We are cooperating with the police in their investigation of claims made by a guest about events that allegedly took place on the evening of March 2, 2013.
"The security of our guests is a priority and to that end our hotels operate robust security systems including 24 hour CCTV footage. We have made available to the police the CCTV footage from the hotel on the evening in question, which was fully operational. It shows no evidence of the alleged events."
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