Campsite find raises hopes for missing British soldiers

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The Independent Online
HOPES were raised yesterday that five British soldiers, lost for 25 days on a mountain in the Borneo rain forest, might still be alive: RAF mountaineers, searching in a perilous stairway of waterfalls, discovered empty sardine tins and the remains of a bivouac used by the missing team. A British forces spokesman said: 'At least we know we're headed in the right direction.'

Finding the campsite meant that the lost team, or at least some of its members, had survived the most dangerous part of the descent down Mount Kinabalu, South-east Asia's highest peak. Two days running now, the RAF rescuers have found evidence of campsites. It seems the missing team managed to spider down a 1,500ft cliff and a slippery ravine of waterfalls and rockpools strewn with boulders the size of houses, where searchers earlier had feared they might have perished.

However, the RAF team of 16 mountaineers and jungle survival experts yesterday abandoned their hunt for several days. 'The RAF had gone as far as they could,' the army spokesman said. They had run out of supplies and were exhausted from the arduous descent into Low's Gully, a jagged ridge sealing in a misty jungle valley.

A fresh team of searchers from the Royal Marines, the army and the RAF will start again tomorrow. They will be dropped by helicopter along the Panataran river and, hacking their way through the dense rain forest, will sweep up Low's Gully to resume the search. Until then, over 300 Malaysian soldiers will continue combing the jungle valley floor. Torrential rains and freak fierce winds bedevilled the air search. One pilot, Flt-Sgt Jim Smith, described how, as he tried to fly low over the rain forest canopy, he had to wrestle with his controls. 'It felt like the helicopter was being drawn towards the cliffs,' he said.

Major-General John Foley, commander of British forces in Hong Kong, arrived yesterday to oversee the rescue efforts. The missing army men are the expedition team leader, Lt-Col Robert Neill, 46, Major Ron Foster, 54, from the Royal Logistics Corps, and three junior non-commissioned officers from Hong Kong, Lam Ywai Ki, 27, Chen Wai Keung, 24, and Cheung Yiu Keung, 32.

The hunt will focus on a dense, 5 sq mile area of jungle at the bottom of Low's Gully. Although the search operation leaders are optimistic after locating the second campsite, they say it could be at least a week old. The lost team's rations probably ran out several days ago, forcing them to forage in the jungle for insects and wild plants. None of the team has any jungle survival training.

The British army expedition reached Mount Kinabalu's 13,455ft summit on 23 February. It soon became evident that the inexperienced Hong Kong climbers were ill-prepared, puffing and straining under the weight of their rucksacks even on the easy 'tourist' ascent. They had also devoured most of their food rations and were ordered to a base camp canteen to buy extra supplies.

Seeing what he described as 'the difference in physical abilities', Lt-Col Neill split up the 10-member party and sent the more seasoned mountaineers on ahead to plot a descent down Low's Gully. Lt-Col Neill and Major Foster, both expert mountaineers, shepherded the three Hong Kong men.

The surviving team members staggered out of the jungle on 11 March, starved and exhausted. One of them, Capt Peter Shearer, had slipped and plummeted 60 feet, smashing his head on a rock and sustaining a severe concussion. Army sources said that he 'lost his will to live' as a result of his injury. 'He wanted to be left there for a rescue party,' the army source said. His men finally convinced him that his chances of rescue were nil, and for the next week, carrying the wounded officer, they fought through the jungle until they finally reached the river and followed it down to a tribal village.

(Photograph omitted)