Stand-off on Sierra Leone hostages

THE FOREIGN Office played down hopes yesterday for an immediate release of the remaining hostages, including three Britons, held by rebels in Sierra Leone.

The newly appointed Foreign Office minister, Peter Hain, spoke in London of an "incredibly volatile and confused" situation. "We're hopeful that the remaining hostages, including the three remaining British officers, will come out sooner rather than later," he told BBC Radio. "I'm hopeful that it will happen within the next day or two."

The intermediary who brought back 19 hostages from the Occra Hills on Sunday has returned "hopefully to get the rest", according to the Foreign Office.

The three British officers, all majors and part of the United Nations observer mission in the West African country, are being held with up to 24 other people in a village some 30 miles east of the capital, Freetown. On Sunday, 19 people were released, including two British officers, and it became clear that the original group of those abducted had numbered nearly 50.

They were taken last Wednesday during an observer mission to the Occra Hills where they were due to oversee the handover to aid workers of several hundred child prisoners.

The hostages are being held by a group from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which wants to know that its leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, is not a prisoner of the main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

According to some reports, which were not confirmed by the Foreign Office spokesman in Freetown, the AFRC was sending four men to Monrovia, the capital of neighbouring Liberia, to see Mr Koroma. If the report is accurate, no more hostages will be freed until the men are satisfied that Mr Koroma is a free man and have returned to tell the kidnappers.

The hostage-takers are also believed to be asking for guarantees of their own safety, perhaps in the form of a letter from the Sierra Leone President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. They want better recognition under a 7 July peace deal for Sierra Leone, which they feel favours the RUF.

The Britons remaining in captivity are Major M Rawlings, Major G Bradley and Major T Lyle. They are with one other United Nations military observer, believed to be from Kyrgyzstan. There are also up to 19 Nigerian peace- keepers with them and one civilian.

On Sunday, among the 19 people released, were Britons Lt-Col Ian Howard- Williams and Major Justin McEwan. They were taken with other released military to Marine House, the villa of the United States Marines, in Freetown.

Yesterday, Michael O'Flaherty, from the UN Human Rights Commission, said there was "no evidence of physical harm" having been done to the men. "They have all been given access to medical assistance and trauma support," he said.

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