Hopes grow for hostages held by Sierra Leone rebels

Hopes are rising that 10 European hostages being held by rebels in Sierra Leone will soon be freed. The men - six Britons, three Swiss and a German - are captives of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which is seeking the overthrow of the West African nation's military regime.

The location of the hostages remains unknown, though all 10 are believed to be together somewhere in the interior.

``We are in regular contact with the rebels,'' said Primo Corvaro of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is negotiating for their freedom. ``The release could happen at any time and right now the mood is very positive.''

Most of the hostages were employed in the once lucrative mines of the south-west, which were overrun in January as the RUF escalated its campaign against the country's economic installations.

One of the Swiss men worked in the timber industry, while two of the Britons were with the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organisation. The VSO workers have been held since early November.

Negotiations for their release are being conducted with a man who claims to be Colonel Foday Sankoh, the mysterious leader of the RUF. The rebel movement, which was launched in 1991 with the backing of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia, has recently started attacking the outskirts of the capital, Freetown.

``It's always the same voice on the short-wave radio,'' said Mr Corvaro, ``and we believe it to be Foday Sankoh. He says the hostages are being held for their own security.''

It is possible the hostages were taken as much for the protection of the RUF as for their own safety. Blame was put on the rebels when two ICRC nurses were killed in 1993 and again last year, when four expatriates were murdered in the interior.

The RUF claims that the government army committed the murders in order to make the rebels appear guilty.Though the ICRC has not yet talked directly to the hostages, diplomats who have communicated with them report they are in good health.

A team of Scotland Yard detectives is in Freetown to help with negotiations for the release of the six Britons. Last month seven Roman Catholic nuns - six Italians and a Brazilian - were freed unharmed by the rebels.

Though Col Sankoh has requested humanitarian assistance for his people, whom he says are suffering, it is understood that no firm conditions have been made for the hostages' release.

There were nearly 800 British nationals registered with the British High Commission in Sierra Leone but fewer than that now remain due to the precarious security situation. Early last week an Irish Catholic priest was killed by rebels in the north of the country. The Foreign Office is advising only those with urgent business to remain in the country.

Action Aid has already pulled out and other non-governmental organisations have drawn up plans for the emergency evacuation of their staff in the event of the rebels launching a big attack on the capital.

However, it is not believed they will be able to take the capital unless a significant part of the army defects. The rebels have been able to disrupt the country by attacking villages and roads at will.

Main towns remain in government hands but large areas of the interior are insecure. Mineral production - which accounted for nearly two-thirds of foreign-exchange earnings - has been halted and diamond mining has been severely affected. Attempts to bring the rebels to peace talks have so far failed.

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