Rebels stripped and humiliated British officers

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 yesterday as a joint British military and civilian team arrived in Freetown to negotiate their release.

After talks between the British team of mediation experts and United Nations officials, two high-ranking rebel commanders were dispatched to the village, 30 miles east of the capital, where the captives - 34 in all - were held.

The two envoys, who were driven for 90 minutes to the last UN checkpoint before the rebel area, represent the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the main guerrilla group in the small West African country, but not the one that is holding the captives. They were expected to reach the hostages on foot by nightfall.

Foday Sankoh, the feared leader of the RUF, ordered the guerrillas to free the hostages, saying: "The prisoners must be released unconditionally." Mr Sankoh insisted that the kidnapping was an isolated incident that did not threaten recent peace accords.

The captured British officers, who had been working as UN military observers, were named as Lieutenant-Colonel IR Howard-Williams, Major John McEwan, Major M Rawlings, Major G Bradley and Major T Lyall. Two 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, self-styled Brigadier Bazzi Kamara, told the British officers: "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 Foreign Office minister Peter Hain denied that the British team had been sent on a "gung-ho" mission to liberate the British captives. He said it "contained all the expertise from military to police negotiating skills and Foreign Office personnel, to negotiate the hostages' safe release".

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 supposed to be part of a peace accord aimed at ending a nine-year onslaught by rebels trying to seize control of Sierra Leone's huge diamond wealth.

A journalist who was captured with the soldiers and released on Thursday brought a message from the rebels demanding food and official recognition. Christo Johnson, of Reuters news agency, 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 RUF, which signed a peace deal with the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in Togo on 7 July.

Mr Johnson quoted a spokesman for the rebel soldiers as saying: "We want the government and particularly the international community to understand that we, as soldiers, were neglected in the Lome peace accord."

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 trek for six miles through swamps and thick bush and crossed a river in two dug-out canoes. 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," Mr Johnson said.

The rebel soldiers told Mr Johnson that Mr Koroma was being held against his will by the RUF. But the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, told BBC Radio from Togo that Mr Koroma was not being held by anyone and was free to travel where he wished. "No, he is not a prisoner. He is a free man." he said. He earlier told The Independent: "I control the RUF and I have my military commanders. I speak for them. The abduction of the foreigners is an isolated incident. It is not the policy of the RUF to abduct people, let alone Westerners."

He denies suggestions that he has fallen out with his military commander, Sam Bockarie, who is alleged by the AFRC to be holding Mr Koroma at Kailahun, in the east of the country. However, it now seems clear that Mr Sankoh is merely trying to maintain a facade of unity. The AFRC, with 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers, is thought to be operating on its own and feels aggrieved by its lack of representation under the Togo peace deal.

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

Leading article,

Review, page 3

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor