Hostage aid workers `walk to freedom' in Liberia `safe' as envoys free them

FOUR British aid workers who disappeared after they became caught up in rebel fighting in Liberia on Wednesday were late last night reported to be walking to freedom in neighbouring Guinea, from where they would be airlifted to safety.

According to reports reaching Sierra Leone, the Britons, volunteers for the medical charity, Merlin, and a United States-based agency, International Rescue Committee, were at the border late yesterday. They were with two colleagues from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and up to 16 United Nations officials.

A European Union aid co-ordinator in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, said MSF was sending an aircraft to collect them, either late yesterday or at daybreak today. They were to be flown to Conakry, the capital of Guinea.

Britain does not have an embassy in Liberia, where a seven-year civil war ended in 1997. But earlier yesterday aForeign Office diplomatic team flew into the country to help secure the release of the four Britons, an Italian woman and a Norwegian man.

It remained unclear last night whether the group had been held hostage or had merely sought refuge in the jungle with the rebels amid heavy fighting. They were in Kolahun, near the Sierra Leone and Guinea border, 150 miles from the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Merlin spoke to Dr Mike Roe, 33, of London, and MSF was in contact with its employees, the Norwegian and the Italian woman. Both charities said that the hostages had not been harmed. The other Merlin workers are Sara Nam, 30, a midwife of Carmarthen, west Wales, and David Heed, a transport specialist of Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. The fourth Briton was not named.

Sierra Leone and Liberia are attempting, with little success so far, to emerge from brutal civil wars. The conflict in Liberia notionally ended in 1997 with a peace agreement and a promise by the President, the former warlord Charles Taylor, to restore order and stability.

But after a brief truce, hostilities with his arch-foe, the rival factional leader Roosevelt Johnson, flared last year.

Monrovia has been reasonably stable, but many analysts believe that pro- Johnson forces from Guinea are behind the seizure of the aid workers.

The fighting in Liberia began in 1990 and dragged on to overlap with the violence in Sierra Leone, where the elected president, Tejan Kabbah, was toppled in a 1997 coup, restored to power in 1998, and all but overthrown again in January.

President Taylor is widely believed to have backed the Sierra Leone rebels, led by Foday Sankoh and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), operating from their strongholds in the east of Sierra Leone, just across the Liberian border.

The peace brokered in Togo between Mr Kabbah and Mr Sankoh last month suffered a setback yesterday when Mr Sankoh failed to arrive in Freetown for a meeting with the World Bank, the British High Commission and the government.

The kidnapping in Liberia plunged West Africa into its third hostage crisis in a week, each involving British citizens. Five Britons had just been freed in Sierra Leone and an equal number in Nigeria.