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Friday, August 6, 1999 Published at 10:23 GMT 11:23 UK

World: Africa

Hostage team flies to Sierra Leone

The kidnappers are linked to the 1997 coup

Hostages freed by rebels in Sierra Leone have been telling of their ordeal as negotiators prepare to try to secure the release of other captives.

Sierra Leone
The team of UK negotiators is on its way to the West African state where rebels captured the group of about 20 peacekeepers and civilians on Wednesday.

The BBC's Rageh Omaar reports: The rebels feel their interests have been overlooked
The UN-led group had met the rebels in an attempt to persuade them to release around 200 children abducted earlier in the year.

Instead, the rebels took them hostage at the rendezvous in the Okra Hills about 40 miles (64km) east of Freetown.

Former junta

  • The kidnappers say they are members of the AFRC - the remnants of the junta which took power following a 1997 coup by the Sierra Leonean army.
  • The AFRC is separate from Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which recently signed a peace agreement with the government.
  • Both groups have previously fought against the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, which was ousted in the 1997 coup but restored in 1998 with the military backing of the Nigerian-led Ecomog intervention force.


[ image:  ]
Almost immediately after the hostages were captured, a small group was released, followed a few hours later by a further two.

Among the released hostages were the Sierra Leonean Bishop of Makeni and UN spokeswoman Jacqueline Chenard and Reuters journalist Christo Johnson.

They said the rebels had a number of demands including the release of their leader, John Paul Koroma, who they say is being held captive in the capital, Freetown, and a role in the peace process.

[ image:  ]
They also said the rebels were demanding supplies of food and medicines.

Mr Johnson told the BBC: "[The rebels said to us] 'We just want the world to know our grievances and you will have to take these grievances to the government and the world'.

"They are very, very desperate. They want their man, Johnny Paul, to be released. They also want peace."

Negotiators fly in

The UK negotiators flying to Sierra Leone include officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and police.

The BBC's Mark Doyle: "Britain has considerable influence in Sierra Leone"
Five British soldiers serving as UN observers and four Sierra Leoneans are among the hostages.

Foreign Office minister Peter Hain said: "We take this incident very seriously and are acting with the utmost urgency."

Mr Hain refused to confirm that SAS elite troops were included in the team from London. But he said those involved had a range of skills, including military expertise.

Rebel order

Winston Ojukutu Macaulay reports: "Women and children were bait"
The kidnappers say they are mainly former army soldiers - the AFRC - who fled to the bush after the Nigerian-led Ecomog intervention force overthrew the last military regime.

They operate independently from the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

An RUP rebel spokesman, Alimamy Paolo Bangura, told the BBC that RUF leader Foday Sankoh had ordered the hostages' release.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has meanwhile announced it is scaling down its programme following the incident.

The kidnappings happened as the UN in New York was preparing to discuss what role the organisation should play in the country, now that a peace deal has been signed between President Tejan Kabbah's government and the RUF.

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