Paras on stand-by to free hostages

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The Independent Online

A Parachute Regiment company flew to West Africa last night to be on stand-by as negotiations to free six British soldiers held hostage in Sierra Leone continued.

A Parachute Regiment company flew to West Africa last night to be on stand-by as negotiations to free six British soldiers held hostage in Sierra Leone continued.

The 150 paras flew to Dakar in Senegal, 500 miles north of the area where the Royal Irish Regiment soldiers and their Sierra Leonean guide were captured by the renegade militia group the West Side Boys.

Defence sources stressed that negotiations with the leaders of the West Side Boys were continuing and remained the most likely method of freeing the hostages. "So long as we believe negotiations will lead to the release of the men we will continue to pursue them. But we would be failing in our duty if we did not have contingencies," a defence source said.

A senior defence official said the paras were not being sent to "send a message" to the rebels. "We don't think this particular group of people would respond well to that. If we were trying to threaten, we would send a lot more than 150."

Negotiations are understood to have taken a more positive turn, after talks stalled last week. British officials have met the leaders of the West Side Boys three times since Sunday.

The shadow defence secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said he hoped the paras being flown out was a sign that the Government intended to take "firm action". "We must take the toughest action necessary to free the hostages as soon as possible," he said.

Five soldiers were released last Wednesday and men are now on board a Navy supply ship having been debriefed. But defence sources said they are still "in the dark" as to how the British troops were taken hostage in the first place.

The soldiers were captured on 25 August in the Masiaka area, about 50 miles east of Freetown. They are holding the hostages in the Occra Hills.

The militia has made different demands, including a request for food and medicine, seats in a new government and the release of prisoners.British officials have stressed they made no concessions to secure the release of the five.

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