As the sun rose over Rokel creek, the Paras stormed a rebel stronghold

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The Independent Online

The order to move in came at 6.16am, just as the sun began to rise over the muddy brown waters of Rokel creek and the dark green canopy of the Occra hills. The calm and stillness of the West African daybreak was shattered by round after round of gun and missile fire and the whirling of helicopter blades.

The order to move in came at 6.16am, just as the sun began to rise over the muddy brown waters of Rokel creek and the dark green canopy of the Occra hills. The calm and stillness of the West African daybreak was shattered by round after round of gun and missile fire and the whirling of helicopter blades.

Within minutes both sides of the Rokel were covered by dense acrid smoke with orange streaks of shells and tracer fires cutting through it.

The operation to rescue the six remaining British soldiers and their Sierra Leone Army liaison officer had begun. In the next nine hours, 25 members of the hostage takers, the West Side Boys militia, would be killed and their commander captured. A paratrooper from the British rescue team of 150 would be killed and 11 of his colleagues injured.

The soldiers of the the Special Air Service and the 1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment had been living and breathing for this moment for the last few days.

Once it became clear that force might have to be used to rescue the remaining six British hostages they had undertaken swift and intense training at the SAS base at Hereford and then in Sierra Leone. Now it was for real.

The SAS had been on the grounds for several days, moving among the red mud and foetid swamps in the foothills of the Occra. They had watched the grinning members of the West Side Boys carry out mock executions of their captives, putting them up in front of "firing squads".

The seven hostages had been moved to the riverside camp three days ago. The SAS had listened in with their eavesdropping equipment as the militia discussed moving the hostages to other sites higher in the dense undergrowth. The advice of the special forces, apparently, was that if action was to be taken, it had to be as soon as possible.

Tony Blair and the Cabinet had given the go ahead on Wednesday and the final preparations were made and the SAS moved into their final vantage point to guide in the paras.

The West Side Boys' first sight of what was to hit them were four helicopters coming low over the swirling currents on to the north shore of the river. As the lead aircraft, a Lynx gunship, dived and strafed the banks, three Chinooks landed a hundred meters away and their para passengers came tumbling out.

Foday Kallay, the self styled Brigadier and homicidal leader of the West Side Boys, had been wary of an attack by the British forces and, unusually for his exotic and ill-disciplined militia, sentries had been posted around the hamlet of Gberi Bana where the hostages were being held.

They had also set up a base across the river at Magbeni with around 60 of their members to provide covering fire in case of an assault.

As a fierce firefight began on the north side of the Rokel the the militiamen at Magbeni, based in tumbledown huts, opened up with heavy machine guns from a series of tumbledown huts and one of the British Land Rovers seized from the hostages.

But within minutes the West Siders were under fire from a second Lynx and an SAS and para squad which had come in across a swampy valley to the south. The Magbeni position was reportedly neutralised within 12 minutes.

On the other side of the river, the rescuers were coming across unexpectedly stiff resistance from the West Siders, whose image had been that of drugged and drunk thugs and rapists who would not have the stomach for a fight against professional forces.

They managed to get to the hostages, killing the guards around them. But attempting to get them to the waiting Chinooks proved difficult as the West Siders sprayed the ground with automatic fire. The dead paratrooper is believed to have been hit at this point. He died later from his injuries.

More of the rescue team suffered injuries as the passage to the Chinook was negotiated. But within 20 minutes the freed hostages had been airlifted to the auxiliary ship Sir Percival off the capital, Freetown.

They had been stripped off their uniforms after their capture, and kept in their underpants. The freed men spoke to their families by satellite telephone, received medical treatment and will be debriefed about the circumstances of their capture.

Along with the rescue, the British team had been tasked to capture Brigadier Kallay, who had ordered the seizure of the 11 men of the Royal Irish Regiment when they paid an unscheduled visit to Magbeni. Brig Kallay, who has a limp said to be due to an injury inflicted by the Sierra Leone Army, had been tracked by the SAS unit. He was seized as he struggled to make his way northwith some of his followers, including a woman, carrying SA-80 rifles they had seized from the captured Britons.

Brig Kallay was handed over to the Jordanian battalion of the UN force in Sierra Leone, which had helped in the rescue operation by securing the main road to Masiaka, which the rebels could have used to bring in reinforcements. He was later passed on to the Sierra Leone government.

Brig Kallay, said to be suffering from cuts and bruises, had apparently asked to speak to Johnny Paul Koroma, a member of the Sierra Leone Government, who, until now, was seen as having considerable influence over the West Side Boys.

Altogether, 18 of the militia, including three women, were captured. Three women were among the 25 dead.

The operation moved to a second phase which, according to senior officers, was to destroy the West Side Boys, which had a combined strength of around 250, as a military force. The paras fanned out after the militia as they fled across the marshes, the pursuit being broken by sporadic bursts of fire.

By 4pm the mission was deemed to have been successfully concluded. The British forces had recovered the three Land Rovers captured from the Royal Irish and some of the rifles.

They had also captured a quantity of rebel weaponry and discovered large supplies of drugs and alcohol. Some of the West Siders were found to be clutching "morale boosters," plastic sachets of locally made gin, in their hands, as they died.