Kidnapped soldiers 'flouted the UN safety regulations'

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The Independent Online

Defence chiefs faced growing criticism yesterday over the capture of 11 British soldiers in Sierra Leone after a senior United Nations officer in the country accused the troops of ignoring safety procedures.

Defence chiefs faced growing criticism yesterday over the capture of 11 British soldiers in Sierra Leone after a senior United Nations officer in the country accused the troops of ignoring safety procedures.

Brigadier General Mohamed Garba, deputy commander of UN forces in the west African country, claimed the British soldiers had laid themselves open to kidnap by failing to tell peace-keepers of their movements. The Nigerian officer said the Royal Irish Regiment group, then made matters worse by straying into militia-held jungle. They were captured on Friday by the West Side Boys rebels.

Talks with the notoriously ill-disciplined rebels were continuing yesterday amid reports they had issued new demands, including the setting up of aninterim regime in which they would be represented.

The 11 soldiers were part of a group of 400 British personnel helping to retrain the Sierra Leonean army after the deployment of 1,500 UK combat troops in May to head off a feared civil war. There have been suggestions of so-called "mission creep" affecting the British operation, with troops asked to undertake peacekeeping-type missions beyond their core training activity.

General Garba said it was not clear whether the soldiers had completed a mission to liaise with Jordanian UN troops in Masiaka, a town 47 miles east of the capital, Freetown, controlled by the West Side Boys.

Hesaid from Freetown that the Jordanians had received no information about the movement of the UK convoy until the news came through that it had been captured. "The British did not say to the UN peacekeepers in Masiaka that they were going into West Side Boys' rebel positions, which I would describe as very dangerous."

The UN officer's comments, which were accompanied by calls from the Conservatives for greater clarity on the role of UK troops in Sierra Leone, were played down by British commanders. Brigadier Gordon Hughes, who heads the British training force, said: "It is really far too early to speculate on the circumstances surrounding the detention of our soldiers."

But a British military source admitted that a review of procedures was now likely. "No one knows the circumstances in which they were taken but if there are lessons to be learnt from this then we will learn them," he said.

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