Five of hostage British soldiers released by Sierra Leone rebels

 

Five of the 11 British soldiers being held by a renegade militia in Sierra Leone have been released, British officials said late last night. The officials were holding out hope that the remaining six would also be liberated soon. "Five of the British soldiers being held have been released and are now in UK hands. They are safe and well," British military spokesman Lieut-Cmd Tony Cramp said.

"We are delighted at this major development and clearly this augurs well for the release of the remaining detainees." He would not say what, if any, conditions had been attached to the release.

He said much of the credit for the breakthrough goes to the combined efforts of UNAMSIL (the UN force in Sierra Leone) and Jorbatt (the Jordanian UNAMSIL contingent).

In London, a spokesman for the Foreign Office confirmed the release of the five. "They are in British hands," the spokesman said. "We are hopeful the others will be released soon.

"Negotiations will continue tomorrow for the release of the remaining detainees."

The group of 11 British servicemen from the Royal Irish Regiment was taken hostage last Friday by a rebel militia known as the West Side Boys.

A team of army officials flew out from Britain to Sierra Leone to help negotiate for the release of the men, who were part of a British army deployment to train the Sierra Leonian army.

Britain's defence ministry has said the men were being well-treated and provided with food and water by their captors.

The Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, said earlier yesterday that he was pulling out all the stops to get the soldiers released, and that the government was anxious to resolve the latest of a string of abductions of UN and British forces in the lawless country.

"We are doing everything possible to secure the release of those detained," he told reporters. "We are anxious to get them released as soon as possible."

The incident has once again highlighted the dangers of operating in war-torn Sierra Leone, with its well-armed factions of shifting loyalties.

A UN military official in Sierra Leone said yesterday that 11 British soldiers held hostage by militiamen had not informed UN peacekeepers of their intention to travel in a rebel-held area.

"The British did not say to UN peacekeepers in Masiaka that they were going into West Side Boys' rebel positions, which I would describe as very dangerous," Brig-Gen Mohammed Garba, a deputy commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, said.

Until now the main threat has been posed by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who kidnapped 500 UN peacekeepers in May, prompting a muscular British intervention.

On Friday, the spotlight fell on the West Side Boys, a grouping of several dozen fighters who have turned their back on the junta they used to support. The junta, which was in power here between from May 1997 to February 1998, has now allied with the government.

The apparent ease with which the West Side Boys surrounded the British contingent, and the proximity of their fiefdom to Freetown - just 40 miles to the west - has raised questions about the scope and effectiveness of the controversial British mission in Sierra Leone.