Gang lists demands for release of Britons

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The Independent Online

Renegade militiamen known as the West Side Boys who are holding 11 Royal Irish regiment soldiers hostage in Sierra Leone last night demanded food, medicine and the release from prison of their leader, known as General Bomb Blast, in return for freeing their captives.

Renegade militiamen known as the West Side Boys who are holding 11 Royal Irish regiment soldiers hostage in Sierra Leone last night demanded food, medicine and the release from prison of their leader, known as General Bomb Blast, in return for freeing their captives.

But despite the clear message from the West Side Boys, who are also holding the Britons' Sierra Leonean guide, there was concern among Sierra Leone government officials that the ragtag nature of the abductors - who do not answer to a formal command structure and who live by extortion - would render negotiations difficult.

A source close to the country's president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, said a "negotiating team" was talking to the armed bandits who captured the 12 near Masiaka, east of Freetown. Professional British negotiators, drawn from Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office, have been dispatched to Sierra Leone on at least three occasions in the past two years.

The Ministry of Defence refused to comment on the inevitable speculation that the SAS had been mobilised, but said a team of "varying makeup" had been sent to help secure the release of the men.

"We are confident we can secure their release through discussion with their captors, and the team was sent in order to aid that process," said a spokesman.

Officials said the leader of the 11-man British team, which was captured Friday, had been in contact and said all were "being fed and well-treated."

"We have made contact with those who appear to be holding" the men, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said, but "discussions are at a very early stage."

He added that Britain was "working closely with the government of Sierra Leone to try to bring this to a conclusion."

A senior Sierra Leonean government official said: "The West Side Boys are making demands for the immediate release of one of their leaders who has been detained at the central prison in Freetown for almost two months." He said the prisoner was known variously as "Bomb Blast" or "General Papa".

Yesterday in Freetown, Army spokesman Capt Joseph Price said: "Intensive efforts are in progress. Initial contact has been made early on and there is progress through other channels." The Ministry of Defence in London said yesterday the men were returning to their base at Benguema from a visit to Jordanian United Nations troops near Masiaka when they were abducted at gunpoint on Friday.

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