West Side Boys Leader ordered seizure in 'fit of drunken pique'

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Four months ago, standing in the ruins of the town of Masiaka, a British Army lieutenant- colonel faced a drunken gang of West Side Boys who had swaggered in, demanding guns.

Four months ago, standing in the ruins of the town of Masiaka, a British Army lieutenant- colonel faced a drunken gang of West Side Boys who had swaggered in, demanding guns.

After seeing them off, he shook his head: "We shall have to sort them out soon. The problem is that our political masters see them as allies and not for what they are - a bunch of murderous thugs."

But no one did sort them out and the West Side Boys were soon seizing arms and ammunition from their erstwhile allies, the Sierra Leone army, and secreting them in their bases in the Occra Hills. They also manned roadblocks on the main road out of the capital which became points of extortion, rape and kidnapping.

The United Nations, the Sierra Leone government and Britain turned a blind eye, because the militias were part of the government coalition against the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. So the West Side Boys, who while allied to the RUF had carried out the worst atrocities when the rebels took Freetown last year, were reinvented as "part of the government forces", with their leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, in the cabinet.

Mr Koroma, who seized power in the past and invited the RUF to join his governing coalition, was regarded with increasing fondness by the British government. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said he was a changed man who had found God. The feeling was that Mr Koroma was needed to keep his Boys under control.

But the militias were slipping out of any sort of control and the Sierra Leone government was forced to arrest their chief military commander, who liked to be known as Commander Bomb Blast or Papa to his homicidal young charges, some as young as eight.

It was this arrest and chagrin about being sidelined from power which led to the capture of the 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment, who for reasons yet to be explained had gone into the Occra hills. Commander Bomb Blast's successor, "Brigadier" Foday Kallay, was apparently incensed that they had entered his territory without permission and, in a fit of drunken pique, ordered their seizure. The demands of Brigadier Kallay varied from the provision of a satellite phone and generator to the dissolution of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government and the formation of a new one including the West Side Boys.

As negotiations continued, and "Commander Cambodia", one of the militia leaders, called the BBC World Service with the satellite telephone to give an interview, the treatment of the hostages rapidly began to get worse. Brigadier Kallay's girlfriend, captured with him yesterday, was one of the chief instigators of the torment.

The hostages were stripped of their uniforms and put through mock executions. Conditions in the huts were said to be atrocious and the amount of food they received depended on the drug-induced whims of their jailers.

At the end, there was a fear that unless something was done, the hostages would die. Alan Jones, the high commissioner in Freetown, said: "We decided the hostages were at extreme risk and the kidnappers made threats which made us believe they would be harmed."

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