Unarmed officers tell of 50-mile jungle escape

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Uniform in shreds, his arms and legs bleeding from thorn cuts, "Aargh!" was the only sound other than a whisper Major Phil Ashby uttered during two days as he escaped with three other officers from Sierra Leone rebels. "It was when Arsenal beat my team, Chelsea, 2-1 last Saturday,'' said the 30-year-old Royal Marine.

Only a few feet away, under a large bush that served as a daytime hiding place by the three British and one New Zealand officers, lay Major Andrew Samsonoff, 26, an Arsenal supporter. But Major Samsonoff, a Light Infantry officer, had no shortwave radio and, instead, developed "a bit of a fixation" with the ants crawling all over him.

The four United Nations observers, who spoke of their ordeal for the first time yesterday, began their 50-mile escape on foot from their besieged compound in the rebel stronghold of Makeni in the early hours of Friday 5 May. Major Ashby made one phone call, to his wife Anna, who works for the Foreign Office in London, then all contact was lost until Monday.

Still nursing his cuts and blisters, Major Ashby, of Putney, south-west London, sat down for breakfast yesterday and said: "Milk! It has been a while." With Major Samsonoff, of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Lieutenant-commander Paul Rowland, a 31-year-old Naval engineer and Major David Lingard, a 37-year-old New Zealand army officer, he had set up a demobilisation camp at Makeni two weeks earlier.

"Our camp, one of eight, was the first in the middle of rebel territory. We had opened it in mid-April and had very little take-up. Then 10 rebels came on 1 May and handed over their weapons,'' said Major Ashby, one of 15 British UN disarmament monitors in Sierra Leone.

The rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), saw the handover as desertion. Believing that the 10 men were staying in the UN compound, although they had been sent back to their villages, 300 rebels launched an attack. "There was an armed stand-off between them and 50 Kenyans," said Major Ashby. "It lasted four days. The rebels started looting the camp and burning it. Two Kenyans were taken hostage."

He believes the Makeni stand-off was the spark for the rebel offensive on Freetown which is still going on. "Once the rebels had killed a few peace-keepers, they were in their minds, at war."

The four unarmed military observers decided at 3am on Friday to scale the back wall of their compound and disappear into the night. "There had been a lot of anti-British remarks from the rebels so we felt there was a price on our heads, and the RUF does not really distinguish between Britain and New Zealand," said Major Ashby. "That is why the four of us decided to escape."

The four men carried only a shortwave radio, a satellite phone with a dying battery, a map, a global positioning system compass, one loaf of bread, half a tin of baked beans, army boil-in-the-bag rations and one litre of water each.

Major Samsonoff said: "We were so thirsty all the time that we did not really desire to eat. I had just recovered from a bout of dysentery and Phil had been down with malaria until two days before the gun battle."

The escapers met a farmer who took them to his village. Major Ashby said the villagers treated them "as though the Queen had come to visit", tending their cuts, feeding them their best food and helping them to contact the UN.

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