Rain halts hunt for soldiers

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HEAVY rain and flash floods forced rescue teams to suspend their search yesterday for five British Army soldiers missing in the jungles of northern Borneo.

The soldiers, two British and three Hong Kong nationals, have not been seen for three weeks since they climbed into an unexplored, mile-deep gully 11,000ft up the flank of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in south-east Asia.

The delay in the rescue attempt, which is not expected to resume until tomorrow, increased concern for the five men, who are believed to be without food.

Ministry of Defence sources said that the group would probably have gone on to half rations some time ago and perhaps supplemented their diet by eating fruit, insects and creatures they found in the jungle.

The missing soldiers - Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill, 46, of the Royal Logistics Corps, Major Ron Foster, 54, of the RLC's Territorial Army branch, and three Hong Kong Chinese serving in the RLC - started a 10-day training expedition on 22 February together with another team of five.

They reached the 13,450ft peak of the mountain two days later. The two teams split up on 26 February before descending into Low's Gully, which plunges down to waterfalls and rapids.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Schumacher, who is leading the British contingent of the search, said the first team had been preparing the route for those now missing, who were a few hundred metres behind: 'They had left behind six ropes for the second batch.'

The teams were due at a rendezvous point on 8 March. Three men from the first team did not appear until the 11th, exhausted and malnourished. The other two appeared the following day in a similar state.

A 20-strong specialist RAF mountain rescue team has been flown in to spearhead the search. Eight members of the team abseiled into the gully early yesterday to try to find the remaining five men. But they were forced back by flash floods after hours of heavy rain.

The team was finally forced to turn back after encountering impassable rock pools.

Hundreds of people have joined the search for the missing soldiers, most of them members of the Malaysian army, park wardens and local mountain villagers.

An MoD spokesman said the Malaysians had been 'magnificent'. He added: 'This is not our country. The locals have put in a great effort.

'They have supplied 240 soldiers but they do not have the equipment, training and experience in mountain rescue.

'We hope the men have hunkered down somewhere to await rescue.'

A Malaysian Brigadier General, Hussin Yusoff, who is co-ordinating the search overall, said: 'They may have sustained injuries other than those normally suffered.'