Tuesday, August 10, 1999 Published at 20:35 GMT 21:35 UK
Sierra Leone hostage crisis ends
The kidnappers said they were AFRC rebels
The hostage crisis in Sierra Leone has come to a peaceful end after rebels released some 200 women and children.
UN officials told the UK's High Commission in the capital Freetown that 20 Nigerian peacekeepers and a UN military observer had been freed on Tuesday along with the children, according to the UK Foreign Office.
The spokesman said the UN military observer was an officer from Kyrgyzstan. The officer had apparently volunteered to stay in captivity until the 200 women and children were allowed to go.
The boys held by the rebels are believed to have been trained as fighters, while the girls, some as young as 12, have been used as sex slaves.
The BBC's Mark Doyle in Freetown says the UN observers are all said to be fit and well and were not maltreated by their captors. However some of the children are sick and malnourished - reflecting their harsh conditions in the rebel camp over the years.
Sierra Leone's Minister of Information, Julius Spencer, said the freed hostages were on their way to Freetown.
He said the whole drama may have been a blessing in disguise as it had forced the government and the rebels to talk to each other.
The group was not included in the peace deal between the larger Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement and President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who was returned to power in 1998.
Mr Spencer said the soldiers had been assured they would not be punished for the hostage-taking.
The kidnappers had demanded food and medical supplies, along with the release of AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma, who they had said was being held by the RUF. He had denied being a prisoner and ordered the rebels to release the hostages.
Asked if supplies would be provided to the soldiers, Mr Spencer said: "We are asking aid agencies to provide food and medicine to the area. If (the soldiers) are around, and they hand in their weapons, maybe food and medicines will get to them eventually."
The mass freeing ends a week-long crisis triggered by the capture of the UN-led team and their escort who had gone to the Okra Hills, about 60km (40 miles) from Freetown, to try to secure the children's release.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was "greatly relieved" that all the hostages had been freed, spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
"With the resolution of this deplorable episode, all Sierra Leoneans and the international community should now look ahead and devote all energies to the implementation of the Lome peace agreement," he said in New York.
The UN secretary-general also urged all sides to release their remaining civilian and military prisoners.