The six released men are all Sierra Leonean civilian drivers. With United Nations military observers, including the Britons, as well as Nigerian peace-keepers and three journalists, they had gone into the rebel-held area to collect freed child prisoners.
Nance Webber, a spokeswoman for the special British and UN negotiating team handling the hostage crisis, said: "All is being done to secure the release of the hostages. We are hopeful but we are not giving it a time-frame.'' The rebel faction holding the hostages in Magbla, some 30 miles from Freetown, is believed to be from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), loyal to former army junta leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, who ruled the country in 1997.
The kidnappers are demanding food, medicines and recognition under a peace accord signed last month. Crucially, they have asked to see Koroma, who they claim is a prisoner of the main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Between them, the RUF and AFRC control two-thirds of the diamond-rich country, with the government, supported by Nigerian troops, holding only the area around Freetown.
There had been some hope that, after a failed mediation effort by an RUF rebel leader on Friday, the captors would respond to a message from Koroma, broadcast yesterday on the BBC World Service. Koroma, who said in the interview that he was a free man, is believed to be in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
But a source who is in contact with rebels all over the country, said: "[Koroma] could have been speaking with a gun to his head. If he is free, he should be brought to the rebels. Then they will release the captives immediately.'' A UN source said that one option could be to bring Koroma to a "neutral place'' where he could speak to the captors by radio.
Even though their names have not formally been released, the five British officers are believed to be Lt-Col I R Howard-Williams, Major J McEwan, Major M Rawlings, Major G Bradley and Major T Lyall.
Aid agencies pull out of rural areas, page 11