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.

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