Blair rejects calls for British forces to be pulled out of Sierra Leone

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Tony Blair has rejected calls for Britain to pull out from Sierra Leone as negotiations continue to free the 11 British soldiers and their guide kidnapped by a rebel militia group.

Tony Blair has rejected calls for Britain to pull out from Sierra Leone as negotiations continue to free the 11 British soldiers and their guide kidnapped by a rebel militia group.

The Prime Minister yesterday insisted that Britain's policy in Sierra Leone had been "very successful", despite the continuing hostage crisis.

Despite calls from Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs for British forces to pull out, aspokesman said the 400 British troops would stay to help train the Sierra Leone government's forces. "We have helped to stabilise a very volatile situation there," the spokesman said. "There are forces that have stayed behind - a small British contingent - to help train the Sierra Leone government forces as part of our effort to further stabilise the area and to support the democratic regime, and that will continue."

In Sierra Leone, hopes of a peaceful end to the hostage crisis arose after British negotiators held face-to-face talks with Brigadier Kalla, a leader of the West Side Boys militia, which is holding the 11 Royal Irish Regiment officers and soldiers along with their local guide.

UN observers and Jordanian peacekeepers at Masiaka, a town near the rebels' base, 40 miles to the east of the capital Freetown, are also in contact with the renegade group. Lieutenant Commander Tony Cramp, a British spokesman in Freetown, said the face-to-face meetings held by Colonel Simon Fordham were an important breakthrough. The negotiators have also had contact with the hostages by radio, raising optimism about the militia's goodwill.

"We have been able to sustain and talk directly to some of the soldiers that are being held," he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "Most importantly we have maintained they are in good health and are well and in good spirits. Negotiations are continuing in a very calm manner, which is obviously how we wish to keep it in the future," he said.

The militia, until recently allied to the government, are thought to be demanding the release of their imprisoned leader, Brigadier "Bomb Blast", and fresh food and supplies.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said that more precise information on the negotiations would be withheld because of the delicacy of the talks, but he insisted that "everything possible" would be done to free the hostages.

"The soldiers are in good spirits. They are not being ill-treated. We are anxious to get them released as quickly as possible," he said.

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