Soldiers free British hostages from jungle

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The Independent Online
Four British hostages held by separatist rebels in a remote Indonesian province for 128 days were due to fly out of the jungle for medical check-ups today after they were released by a covert military operation.

Two Dutch nationals, one of them seven-months pregnant, and three Indonesians were also freed when the local equivalent of the Special Air Service stormed the rebels' mountain hideaway in Irian Jaya in monsoon conditions. Two more Indonesians were still being held and troops were said to be in "hot pursuit" of the fleeing separatists.

The families of the four Britons - Daniel Start, 21, Bill Oates, 22, Anna McIvor, 20, and Annette van der Kolk, 21 - were "delighted" last night after reports that all of them were unharmed, though weak and thin after their ordeal. The four, all graduates of Cambridge University on a scientific expedition to the region, were forced by the appalling weather to spend an extra night on the mountain guarded by soldiers. It may be several days before they are fit to fly home, probably at the weekend after they have had medical checks.

Susan McIvor, from Bourne-mouth, Dorset, who heard of her daughter's release from the Foreign Office, said: "I'm naturally thrilled to hear that everyone released is well. But we are obviously concerned about what has happened to the remaining two."

She said that Anna's letters, passed via the Red Cross, showed she had adapted well. "She has a great ability to cope with things. I always felt she would come back."

Colonel Sultan Iskandar, deputy spokesman for the ABRI, the Indonesian military, said that soldiers had scaled down ropes from helicopters before rebels fired "four or five" shots at them. "There were no injured, dead or whatever," he said. His troops had attacked when the 20 rebels, seven armed, were some way from the hostages, to reduce casualties.

The hostages were located by a pilotless drone aircraft in a remote jungle clearing near the village of Geselama, in the Baliem Valley.

The Britons and 22 others were captured on 8 January by members of the Free Papua Movement - OPM - to publicise their campaign for independence for the Indonesian- occupied half of New Guinea. A German and 14 others were released shortly afterwards.

The 50 troops moved in at 8am British time yesterday, a week after talks involving hostage negotiators from Scotland Yard broke down.

Aidan Rankin, of Survival International which campaigns for tribal peoples' rights, welcomed the safe release but said it was concerned that the authorities might carry out widespread "bloodletting" and make West Papuans scapegoats for the incident.

The Dutch man who was freed is Marc Van Der Wal, who works for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The pregnant woman, Martha Klein, is a United Nations official based in the capital, Jakarta.

Indian authorities and Kashmiri militants both denied British newspaper reports yesterday that four Western hostages, including two Britons, held in the Himalayas by gunmen for more than 10 months may have been killed.

In New Delhi, a British High Commission spokesman said: "We're following up these reports through every contact we have. But we're continuing on the basis that the hostages are still very much alive."

Keith Mangan,33, from Middlesbrough, and Paul Wells, 24, a student from Nottingham, were seized by an Islamic militant group, known as Al-Faran.