Among those released were six Sierra Leonean civilian drivers along with the two Britons, one of whom was named in Freetown last night as Lt Col Ian Howard-Williams. With United Nations military observers, as well as Nigerian peace-keepers and three journalists, they had gone to the rebel-held area to collect freed child prisoners.
Up to three Britons and 20 others, thought to be mainly military, remained in captivity last night about 30 miles east of Freetown. "We believe they are receiving food and have been given shelter and are being treated well," said a Foreign Office official.
The release came about after intense negotiations, led by a specialist British mediation team. But the Foreign Office would not specify what, if any, conditions had been made to the captors, from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, (AFRC). That movement is loyal to the former army junta leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, who ruled the country in 1997.
The kidnappers are demanding food, medicines and recognition under a peace accord signed last month. Crucially, they want to see Mr Koroma. They claim he is a prisoner of the main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Between them, the RUF and AFRC control two-thirds of the country, with the government, supported by Nigerian troops, holding only the area around Freetown.
There had been some hope that the captors would respond to a message from Mr Koroma. Mr Koroma, who said in the interview that he was a free man, is believed to be in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
But a source who is in contact with rebels, said: "He [Mr Koroma] could have been speaking with a gun to his head. If he is free, he should be brought to the rebels. Then they will release the captives immediately.'' A UN source said that one option would be to bring Mr Koroma to a "neutral place'' where he could speak to the captors by radio.
The four British officers held are believed to be Major J McEwan, Major M Rawlings, Major G Bradley and Major T Lyall.
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