Rebels stripped and humiliated British officers

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The Independent Online
FOUR BRITISH majors and a lieutenant-colonel were facing a third night as hostages of notoriously ruthless and unpredictable rebels in the Sierra Leonean bush, as a joint British military and civilian team arrived in Freetown yesterday to negotiate their release.

The senior British officers working as United Nations military observers were named as Lt-Col IR Howard-Williams, Major John McEwan, Major M Rawlings, Major G Bradley and Major T Lyall. Two of them were stripped on capture, and another member of the group, a journalist, was forced to carry a rebel commander on his shoulders through a swamp.

A rebel commander told the officers that Britain was responsible for the situation in Sierra Leone, but they would not be harmed. Self-styled Brigadier Bazzi Kamara, said: "All of you may rest assured you are not going to be killed or harmed. You will go back safely when we are ready. As young military men you should know that your British people, as our former colonial masters, are responsible for the situation in Sierra Leone today.

"But we are not going to harm you, we know you are our brothers and you have been assisting us a lot. We only want you and the world to understand our cause."

The soldiers were kidnapped at gunpoint on Wednesday afternoon during their first hazardous mission - overseeing the release of several hundred child prisoners.

The handover was meant to be part of a peace accord aimed at ending a nine-year onslaught by rebels who want to seize control of Sierra Leone's huge diamond wealth.

A journalist who was captured with the soldiers and was released on Thursday brought a message from the rebels demanding food and official recognition. Christo Johnson, of Reuters, said the rebels, from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, were demanding to see their leader, Johnny Paul Koroma. They claim he has been imprisoned by the main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which has signed a peace deal with the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

Mr Johnson said the British officers were being held in a village in the Occra Hills called Magbla which is occupied by some 500 rebels including child soldiers. "They are in good hands. At one point, two of the British officers were stripped of their uniforms. But these were returned when a commander came to the scene and said "we are real soldiers and so are they, and so we must treat them with respect'."

Mr Johnson said the group was forced to make a six-mile trek through swamps and thick bush - exhausting terrain because the rainy season is at its heaviest this month - as well as a river crossing in two dug-out canoes. He said the operation had clearly been well planned but he warned: "These rebels are unpredictable men. You never know who they will shoot.

"They told us to put our hands in the air and to walk. The swamp at one point was so deep, I sank in above my knees. One of the commanders told one of the journalists to carry him on his shoulders.

"When we got to Magbla, they gave us bowls of rice ... In the evening they gave us huts to sleep in and mosquito nets. The conditions are good by jungle standards,'' said Mr Johnson.

In January this year, the RUF and AFRC, together with disaffected Sierra Leone Army troops, invaded Freetown. But since that offensive, deep divisions have reportedly emerged among the rebels. These were worsened during the Togo talks where the RUF was the only rebel group invited. It secured four cabinet seats for itself, the control of a new commission to issue diamond-exporting licences and an amnesty.