British soldier killed in Sierra Leone

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The Independent Online

British paratroopers and special forces yesterday staged an extraordinary jungle operation to rescue the six soldiers being held by the West Side Boys militia group in Sierra Leone.

British paratroopers and special forces yesterday staged an extraordinary jungle operation to rescue the six soldiers being held by the West Side Boys militia group in Sierra Leone.

Using helicopter gunships the British force of 150 stormed the militia's stronghold where the men were being held. The operation led to the death of a British soldier and injuries to 11 others, and to Opposition calls for a withdrawal from the West African state.

The Government and senior military officials declared that the rescue mission had been an ovewhelming success. Twenty five members of the hostage takers were killed and 18 others captured, including their leader, the seld-styled "Brigadier" Foday Kallay.

Military sources in London and the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, also declared that the operation, which lasted from 6.16am until just after 4pm, had destroyed the militia as a force and has sent a warning to other armed factions in the country.

The serviceman who died in the rescue mission was the first British casualty in Sierra Leone. No details of his regiment were released by the Ministry of Defence and unconfirmed reports claimed he was a member of the SAS. News of the death cast a long shadow over the celebrations of the families of the hostages at their release.

Major John Douglas, second-in-command of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, said last night: "Obviously the reaction from the families of the six rescued soldiers is one of devastation that anybody should be hurt in this operation. Because we have been so closely involved with our families and the emotional trauma they have been going through, I think we can start to understand the loss the family is suffering at the moment."

Mr Blair, who yesterday authorised the mission, said: "I cannot pay high enough tribute to the skill, the professionalism and the courage of the armed forces involved. Inevitably in such an operation as this, there are casualties. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families." He added: "This was an operation of immense danger in the face of armed resistance."

News of the dramatic gun battle, undertaken after negotiations broke down and the rebels began staging mock executions of their captives, broke just after 9.30am today. Sir Charles Guthrie, chief of the defence staff, announced during an interview on BBC1 that the mission had begun at 6.30am, and warned it was "difficult and dangerous".

The British rescue squad swooped into the jungle by helicopter. Sir Charles told a news conference the British forces moved in on the militia's base, spread across both sides of Rokel creek, close to Magbeni, just before 6.30am. "The West Side Boys were not a pushover, they fought very hard," Sir Charles said. The creek was surrounded by mango swamp and thick vegetation.

As Paras and other forces battled to gain control of three strategic points around the rebel base, there was "a significant exchange of fire", he said. The hostages were swiftly identified and removed. Rescuers then fought to secure release of their equipment, which included a Land Rover with a mounted machine gun. MoD sources said they were successful. The six hostages rescued in the dawn raid, code-named Operation Barras, were last night said to be physically and mentally exhausted by their ordeal.

The soldiers had been held in mud and bamboo huts in a mosquito-infested swamp of jungle about 50 miles east ofFreetown. All 11 soldiers who were taken hostage were expected to return home to the UK within the next few weeks.

The rescue operation itself lasted only 90 minutes, said the MoD sources. Brigadier Gordon Hughes, the Commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone. "I would personally like to pay tribute to the courage, bravery and professionalism of all the servicemen who were involved in the planning and the execution of this operation," he said. "I believe this operation reflects our unflinching commitment to the people and the armed forces of Sierra Leone."

Mr Blair said last night: "The operation was authorised once it became clear to us that the negotiations for their release were not being carried out in good faith and the lives of the hostages were in danger.

"The operation is complete and has been very successful. The hostages are safe.

"This was an operation carried out in circumstances of immense danger, in the face of armed resistance."

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon earlier told a news conference that the West Side Boys had repeatedly threatened to kill their hostages and staged mock executions.

The shadow defence secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said: "We send our condolences to the family of the soldier who was killed and our best wishes go to those that were wounded."Earlier he had repeated his call for British troops to be pulled out of Sierra Leone because of confusion over their role there.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Paul Keetch, said: "It was clearly felt the time was right to conduct this mission. We accept and support that."