Sierra Leone hostage troops will be released 'very soon'

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The Independent Online

The British troops being held hostage by armed rebels in Sierra Leone will be released "in the near future", the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, predicted yesterday.

The British troops being held hostage by armed rebels in Sierra Leone will be released "in the near future", the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, predicted yesterday.

Mr Annan said negotiators had begun talks with the renegade group, the West Side Boys, which has been holding the 11 Royal Irish Regiment soldiers and their guide since Friday in jungle about 40 miles east of Freetown, the capital.

British officials in Freetown confirmed that talks had begun with a rebel leader called Brigadier Kalla. Lieutenant Commander Tony Cramp said: "We have opened up a dialogue with the group through their leader."

Speaking at the UN headquarters in New York, Mr Annan was optimistic that the crisis would be quickly resolved. "There are expectations that they will be released and progress will be made, and I hope that will be the case."

Asked if he believed that the hostages would be released soon, he said: "In the near future, yes."

It is thought the British soldiers, part of a contingent of 400 troops training a new Sierra Leone army, were captured by the West Side Boys as a bargaining tool to seek fresh supplies and the release of their leader, Brigadier "Bomb Blast", being held in prison in Freetown.

The rebels are a ragged group of ill-disciplined teenagers and former Sierra Leonean soldiers who were, until the end of June, part of a pro-government alliance fighting Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels for control of the country and its lucrative diamond reserves.

The group fell out with the Sierra Leone army after a series of alleged rapes and muggings at roadblocks. They were previously loyal to Johnny-Paul Koroma, a former junta leader and ally of the RUF. On Sunday, Mr Koroma denounced the West Side Boys and called on them to release the hostages.

Despite concerns about the gang's indiscipline, Brigadier Gordon Hughes, commander of the Royal Irish Regiment units in Sierra Leone, said the 12 captives were being well treated and that the situation was calm. "I want to assure people that they are unharmed, they have been given food, water, shelter, and they are generally being well treated," he said.

However, the crisis led to reinforced calls in London from the Conservatives for a complete review of Britain's role in Sierra Leone. This is the third kidnapping involving British personnel and UN peace-keepers. In May, more than 500 of the UN force were captured by the RUF. They were released, but had their vehicles, arms and uniforms confiscated. Last August, five British military observers were among a group abducted by the RUF. They were released in return for food and medicines.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories' defence spokesman, said the British hostages were the victims of "mission creep", in which their role had become dangerously confused. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Duncan Smith added: "We do think the Government needs now to take very, very serious action and have to contemplate whether or not it's worth keeping British troops out there at all."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said ministers should have a "long, hard, look" at Britain's participation.

However, their criticisms were rejected by Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, who recently returned from a second visit to Sierra Leone. If Britain had not intervened in May, he said, the country would be controlled by RUF rebels.

"There would have been a lot more arms chopped off and decent people killed," he said, "and then the same media who are now berating the Government would be saying: 'Why weren't we there to help a democratically elected Commonwealth country that begged for our co-operation?'"

Mr Annan said that the peace-keeping force in Sierra Leone was being increased from 13,000 to 20,500 troops. "The rebels have to be careful not to go around believing it is easy to take peace-keepers as hostages," he said, "because they do have robust rules of engagement and they are going to be defending themselves."