Army failed to warn commander of captured troops about militia risk from rebels

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The British troops abducted in Sierra Leone were not given vital intelligence about the dangers facing them in the area where they were seized by the West Side Boys, the Ministry of Defence admitted yesterday.

The British troops abducted in Sierra Leone were not given vital intelligence about the dangers facing them in the area where they were seized by the West Side Boys, the Ministry of Defence admitted yesterday.

Major Alan Marshall led 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment and their Sierra Leone Army liaison officer into the village of Magbeni in the Occra Hills in the belief that it was inhabited only by civilians. In reality, the village was one of the main bases of the violent militia and its homicidal leader, Foday Kallay. The British troops were stripped off their weapons and uniform andheld hostage, an episode that greatly embarrassed the Government and the military hierarchy and led to Opposition demands for a British withdrawal from Sierra Leone.

The subsequent rescue operation cost the life of Bombardier Brad Tinnion of the SAS and injuries to 11 other British soldiers. Twenty-five of the West Siders, including women and child soldiers, were also killed. Major Marshall, 33, from Northern Ireland, faces disciplinary action after an initial army inquiry found him guilty of " a grave mistake" and "an error of professional judgement". The case is expected to be dealt with personally by Lt-Gen Sir Mike Jackson, commander in chief of UK land forces.

But yesterday the Ministry of Defence said the major and his patrol had not received intelligence briefings about the Magbeni area before they set off to meet Jordanian forces serving with the UN.

MoD officials said no briefing was necessary because Major Marshall had blundered into Magbeni by deviating from his route. But the same officials acknowledged that Magbeni is less than three miles from the authorised route and West Side Boys often roamed the area.

MoD officials also acknowledged that it was army policy to allow officers in command to make operational decisions, and the "initiative" shown by Major Marshall was far from unusual. An army source said "We have a tacit understanding that some officers will go on these 'look sees', this is seen as initiative. Everyone knows that and that is why the failure to provide intelligence about an area three miles away is so surprising."

Major Marshall was badly beaten during his captivity. He is currently at the Royal Irish barracks in England, and is said to be deeply upset by events, especially the death of Bdr Tinnion. An army source said the major "had begun and ended each interview by saying that he, and he alone, took full responsibility for what happened".

Major Marshall and his team, who were training the Sierra Leone Army, had left their barracks at Benguema to meet a Jordanian battalion inthe town of Masiaka. A main part of the meeting was supposed to be about the West Side Boys, who had stepped up their campaign of extortion, murder and rape in the area. This also makes it surprising that the major and his men remained unaware of the militia threat at Magbeni.

After leaving Masiaka, Major Marshall radioed his base to say he was heading back. But then he decided to take his convoy of three Land Rovers, one mounted with a machine-gun, off the main road into Magbeni.

Within minutes they were surrounded by about 25 members of the militia. At first the encounter was friendly, but with the appearance of Kallay, who seemed to be drunk, the atmosphere turned ugly.

Kallay, aged 24, was said to be screaming with anger and accusing the British of invading his fiefdom. Suddenly, a truck bearing twin machine-guns appeared from behind the trees to take up position behind the British forces. The militia demanded they surrender their weapons, and when Major Marshall tried to negotiate he was beaten to the ground.

The hostages were taken across Rokel river to another militia base, at Gberi Bana where they were held for two weeks. The conditions in the huts in which they were kept were said to be atrocious and the amount of food they got depended on the whims of the often drugged and drunk captors. Towards the end the British soldiers were subjected to mock executions, forced to stand in front of "firing squads".

According to the army report, Major Marshall showed bravery and took personal risk in standing up for his men. A senior officer said: "He was doing his utmost to redeem himself and his courage will be taken into consideration when he is dealt with. But he made a mistake and it will remain on his record."