British troops attack rebel base and free hostages

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The Independent Online

British troops this morning carried out a surprise attack on a swampy base belonging to a renegade Sierra Leonean army gang, freeing all six British soldiers held hostage there.

British troops this morning carried out a surprise attack on a swampy base belonging to a renegade Sierra Leonean army gang, freeing all six British soldiers held hostage there.

The rescue team, including helicopter-borne paratroopers, exchanged heavy fire with the renegades on both sides of a 300-metre creek surrounded by mangrove swamps and jungle, British Chief of the Defense Staff General Sir Charles Guthrie said.

The rescue operation, which began shortly after dawn around 0630 GMT, centered on the maverick West Side Boys faction camp in the Occra Hills, where the hostages had been held since August 25. The renegade base is some 45 miles east of Sierra Leone's coastal capital, Freetown.

"There have been a few casualties on our side," Sir Charles said but refused to give further details.

"The hostages themselves are safely back in our hands, all seven of them - six British and one from Sierra Leone," said Lieutenant Commander Tony Cramp, spokesman for British forces in Sierra Leone. He declined to give details of casualties, saying "next of kin are still being informed."

There were also substantial renegade casualties, possibly including women fighting alongside the gang which fought back fiercely, Sir Charles said.

The action was taken after captors holding British soldiers "threatened repeatedly to kill the hostages," British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said.

Hoon said Sierra Leone's army provided "support and assistance" to the rescue operation, which Lt Cdr Cramp described as a cooperative effort between Britain and Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone Information Minister Julius Spencer said there were no British deaths although one British soldier was believed seriously injured.

At least 17 members of the West Side Boys, the army gang holding the hostages, were killed and a number of others wounded. An unknown number were captured, including one of the gang's leaders, known as Brigadier Kallay, Spencer added.

"It was a very difficult operation," Mr Spencer said. "We hope this sends a message to (Sierra Leone rebel groups) to give up their arms."

The rescue operation was sanctioned by Prime Minister Tony Blair and had the approval of Sierra Leone President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the U.N. peacekeeping force in the wartorn West African country, Lt Cdr Cramp said.

Lt Cdr Cramp said the freed hostages were "safe and alive" aboard the British navy vessel Sir Percival berthed in Freetown's harbor.

Sir Charles told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost that the rescue operation was taken because negotiations for the soldiers' release had been getting nowhere.

The West Side Boys captured 11 British soldiers and a Sierra Leonean soldier on August 25. Five Britons were freed last week.

British officials feared for the safety of the hostages in the hands of the West Side Boys, a notoriously undisciplined gang that has fought both the Sierra Leone government and rebels of the country's brutal Revolutionary United Front.

"Over the last couple of days it was felt these talks were not going anywhere and on the advice of those conducting negotiations it was felt there was an imminent danger to the men being held," Lt Cdr Cramp said.

The hostages are members of the 1st Irish Regiment, a team of British army trainers who are helping rebuild Sierra Leone's shattered defense force. The rebels are responsible for the deaths and intentional mutilation of tens of thousands of civilians since war began in 1991.

Less than a year after signing a July 1999 peace accord, the Revolutionary United Front rebels renewed Sierra Leone's war in May by seizing hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers and attacking towns.

On Thursday, several dozen British paratroopers arrived in Sierra Leone from Dakar, Senegal, to give negotiators the option of a military rescue. Britain also has more than 200 soldiers based in Sierra Leone.

In Canterbury, England, British army spokesman Paul Beard said the hostages' families had been given advance warning of the rescue and were "delighted at the news."