Britons airlifted to safety

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The Independent Online
British diplomats who have manned the High Commission in Sierra Leone since a coup plunged the country back into anarchy 10 days ago were yesterday evacuated by US Marines in the final airlift out Freetown, capital of the chaotic West African state.

A spokesman aboard the assault ship USS Kearsarge said the evacuation was complete. About 1,200 people were airlifted from the assembly point in the Cape Sierra hotel in Freetown. The Foreign Office said at least 160 Britons were among them, and they hoped all the Britons were now out.

"There will be no further evacuation", the Foreign Office warned remaining Westerners yesterday morning. "The British High Commission Staff will leave Freetown with this evacuation. All British and American nationals who think it is safe to do so should make their way to the Cape Sierra hotel as soon as possible."

The USS Kearsarge, which was initially sent to watch western and central Africa as Laurent Kabila's forces pressed westwards through Zaire last month, returned to Freetown yesterday. On Friday, 800 foreigners were airlifted to the carrier by helicopter. After dropping them in Conakry, in neighbouring Guinea, the ship reappeared off Freetown yesterday morning for the final airlift.

Acting Major Lincoln Jopp, 28, of the Scots Guards, was hit by shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade in the Mammy Yoko hotel complex on Monday. Sierra Leone rebels had been exchanging fire with Nigerian troops who are part of a West African peace-keeping force. Major Jopp and Peter Penfold, the High Commissioner, were among the Britons taken aboard the Kearsarge by helicopter yesterday.

At least 10 people were taken aboard the helicopters on stretchers, including one who was on drips.

The Mammy Yoko was used as the assembly point for the previous evacuation. But it became untenable after the 50 Nigerian soldiers guarding it came under attack from rebels.

Before dawn yesterday the remaining Westerners made the 15-minute walk in darkness to the Cape Sierra, which an MoD spokesman described as a "quieter hotel".