Pilot spotted 'pebble SOS' left by lost soldiers

FLYING his helicopter in the gap between the descending mist and the jungle treetops, Captain Mohamed Izhar of the Malaysian army approached a steep ravine of waterfalls on the side of Borneo's Mt Kinabalu, where five British soldiers had gone missing 29 days earlier. His small Alouette helicopter shuddered in the violent winds.

'Just as I was turning back, I saw an SOS that had been written in white pebbles on a black boulder beside the river,' Captain Izhar said. 'I dropped down and saw three men waving and flashing mirrors.'

This was the unexpectedly happy end to an expedition that was a disaster from the start. The expedition leader, Lientenant-Colonel Robert Neill, 46, and Major Ron Foster, 54, were both seasoned climbers, but their three Hong Kong colleagues - Victor Lam Ywai Ki, 27, Chen Wai Keung, 24, and Cheung Yiu Keung, 32 - were novices. The climb down Low's Gully, on the flank of Mt Kinabalu (13,455ft), was notoriously difficult, with waterfalls, rockpools and precipices dropping into bottomless mist. The men only had 10 days' food rations.

Things started to go wrong on the first day of the expedition. Only five of the expedition of two British officers, five British non-commissioned officers and three Hong Kong Chinese soldiers reached the base camp on Mt Kinabalu that evening. Among those who did not were two of the Hong Kong men who could not carry their 88lb kit bags up the steep but climbable tourist trail to the camp at 11,000 feet. They had to dump rations and climbing equipment to lighten their packs.

The next day three of the Hong Kong soldiers were sent back down the mountain to stock up their rations after it was realised that they had insufficient food. They returned, but within two days the expedition split in two. The reason was that the Hong Kong men were less fit than the rest and so the two officers stayed with them while the British NCOs went ahead, marking out the trail and leaving notes and ropes to help the slower group.

But even the faster team got into trouble and were lucky to get out alive. Two of them, Sergeant Bob Mann and Lance-Corporal Richard Mayfield, split off from their colleagues, Corporal Hugh Brittan, and Lance-Corporals Peter Shearer and Stephen Page. Out of food, exhausted and with Lance-Corporal Shearer suffering from severe concussion after falling 60 feet down a rockface, the two sections of the group staggered into separate Malaysian villages on the same day and alerted the authorities. A search was immediately launched for the remaining five.

After they were found yesterday, a British paramedic was winched down along with a box of high- protein army rations and a note from the British army operations leaders. Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Schumacher said: 'Basically the message said: 'We're going to get you out, so don't give up. Hang in there.' ' Clouds and failing sunlight yesterday made it impossible, despite several more passes with the helicopter, to rescue the three remaining British soldiers. Two Malaysian paramedics were also winched down with more rations. Brigadier-General Yusof Husin, in charge of the Malaysian side of the rescue mission, said: 'Surely, they'll spend a more comfortable time on the mountain tonight.'

The soldiers disappeared at a time when Malaysia's relations with the UK had reached a low. The Sunday Times had reported allegations that Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had been offered bribes by a British firm seeking contracts. However, there was no sign that this diplomatic spat hampered rescue operations. As Brig-Gen Husin said: 'Politics doesn't enter into it. This is about soldiers helping soldiers.'

Although fearful for their safety, some Ministry of Defence spokesmen talked about the expeition members surviving on a diet of earthworms and snakes after their rations ran out. The truth was that there was little to forage and all the faster team saw were two snakes the size of pencils and three raspberries.

Fishing in fast flowing waters is difficult, they had no local guides to teach them how to hunt and most leaves contain protective poisons against parasites. Most of the men had adventure training but not specialist jungle survival skills.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

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