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Tuesday, August 10, 1999 Published at 20:35 GMT 21:35 UK

World: Africa

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.

Sierra Leone
The group was freed along with other civilians and the last United Nations and military hostages who were captured when a UN team tried to secure the children's release last week.

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 BBC's Ben Brown reports: "An estimated five thousand children remain in captivity"
A Foreign Office spokesman said the 20 Nigerians were serving in the West African Ecomog force, five as officers and 15 as soldiers.

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.

Harsh conditions

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.

[ image:  ]
Those who were released are among are an estimated 5,000 children being held against their will by the rebels. UN officials say their release is critical to the wider peace process in Sierra Leone.

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 BBC's Mark Doyle: The release of the children will be seen as a good sign for the peace process
The hostage-takers had said they were members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) - former members of the government army who rebelled and took control of the country in a military coup in 1997.

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.

[ image: Johnny Paul Koroma ordered hostages' release]
Johnny Paul Koroma ordered hostages' release
The RUF - which had fought alongside the AFRC - was given a role in government under the agreement.

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."

'Deplorable episode'

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.

[ image:  ]
The children were released a day after the rebels freed four UN hostages - including three British United Nations military observers - from the jungle camp where they were being held. Nineteen other hostages were set free on Sunday.

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.

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