SAS on standby as hostage talks start with Sierra Leone rebels

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BRITISH and United Nations mediation experts in Sierra Leone had yesterday established contact with the band of 500 rebels who have taken 34 hostages, among them five British army officers.

The negotiating team is talking to the rebels from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) by radio, but there was no clear information about the condition of the hostages, nor the state of negotiations.

The AFRC is known to be demanding food and medicines and the release of its leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, who it claims is being held by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front.

The captives - Nigerian soldiers, Sierra Leonean drivers and journalists as well as 10 UN military observers including the five Britons - were abducted at gunpoint last Wednesday when they drove into the Occra Hills to collect child prisoners who were due to be released.

The UN source said two prominent RUF leaders, Mike Lamin and Idrissa Kamara, had been dispatched to the village, Glba, on Friday afternoon. The source said: "They had to walk 40 minutes from the last UN checkpoint. Only Kamara went into the village and we have been in contact with him ever since." Kamara served in the Koroma-led AFRC junta which ruled Sierra Leone for 10 months in 1997. Lamin is associated only with the RUF.

The source said that the expert British mediation team which arrived in Freetown on Friday - made up of police, military and Foreign Office officials - is "fully integrated" in the negotiations. Reports that an SAS unit had been sent to Freetown could not be confirmed. "The mediation approach is the one we favour," said a Foreign Office spokesman.

Seven African foreign ministers - including those of Nigeria and Libya - met in Freetown yesterday as part of a series of contact meetings following the signing of a Sierra Leone peace deal on July 7. They were joined by an RUF delegation.

Rebel factions have been blamed for widespread atrocities against civilians.