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The BBC's Mark Doyle reports
"The government warning reflects the complex array of forces aligned against the rebels"
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The BBC's Jeremy Cooke in Freetown
"The Paras are testing their guns"
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The BBC's Allan Little in Freetown
"The people believe that the British have rescued them from a civil war"
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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 00:16 GMT 01:16 UK
UN observers escape from rebels
UN Soldiers
UN soldiers are dug in against attack, backed up by UK forces
Four UN military observers in Sierra Leone have escaped after being held hostage by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels.

The three Britons and a New Zealander were serving with the UN in the town of Makeni in northern Sierra Leone. They were abducted on Tuesday of last week by rebel forces.

In another development, the government of Sierra Leone has issued a warning that anyone carrying arms without authorisation in areas under its control will be arrested.

Britain on Thursday warned that its troops in and around the capital, Freetown, will "hit back hard" if they are attacked by rebels.

Escape

A spokesman for the British military, Lieutenant Tony Cramp, said the escaped peacekeepers slipped away from their captors at the end of last week and were picked up on Tuesday by a British military helicopter.

The four men made their escape by scaling a wall.

They then headed south, walking by night and hiding by day, for a further three days before reaching the town of Magburaka on Monday.


UK helicopter
An RAF helicopter moves equipment into position
There, they ran into a UN contingent from the West African state of Guinea, who brought them back to Freetown.

"They had a satellite phone, so we knew they were on their way, but the battery packed up after 24 hours," Lieutenant Cramp said.

The four observers were unharmed from their ordeal and are now resuming their work with the United Nations.

The escapees were identified as Majors Phil Ashby and Andrew Samsonoff and Lieutenant Paul Rowland from Britain, and New Zealander Major David Linguard.

About 500 UN troops remain hostages of the RUF.

Government warning

The Sierra Leone Government warning against unauthorised weapons, broadcast on state-controlled radio, was aimed not only at possible rebel infiltrators, but at the wide variety of pro-government factions which have been active in Freetown, as well as criminal elements.

Balance of forces
Rebels: Up to 20,000, including 10,000 combat troops
Army: At least 3,000 poorly-armed troops
Pro-government Kamajors: 15,000 militiamen
UN: 8,700 peacekeepers, rising to 11,100
UK: 1,000 paras in Freetown, naval flotilla

BBC Freetown correspondent Mark Doyle says the warning to unauthorised armed groups in the capital reflects the complex array of forces aligned against the rebels.

The UN troops are now bolstered by the government army, which is made up of two, sometimes mutually hostile, units and a variety of pro-government militias.

Click here to see recent fighting spots

The British military are trying to bring all of these elements together by placing liaison officers in key positions.

Rebels
The rebels have been pushed back in some areas
British special forces are mounting reconnaissance missions in rural areas. UK and UN troops are reported to have stepped up defences around the capital in anticipation of a possible rebel offensive.

British forces are widening their mission in Sierra Leone, staying for at least another month and having a freer hand to support the UN, the UK Government has announced.

Under pressure to clarify the exact nature of the UK's involvement in the crisis, the government said its troops would not be committed to a combat role, but would continue to offer technical and logistical support while the UN builds up its forces.

US backing

US President Bill Clinton has promised the UN firm support for its mission in Sierra Leone.

The US has not promised to deploy any of its own troops.

White House spokesman PJ Crowley said much planning was going on behind the scenes, and this "should send the RUF an unmistakable signal that the international community is committed to reinforce this mission, to stabilise the situation and to see if we can't turn back towards progress on the ground".

President Clinton has also announced plans to send Jesse Jackson, the prominent civil rights leader, to West Africa to help resolve the crisis.

Repelling rebels

RUF rebel units came under attack on Thursday from UN and Sierra Leone government forces and at one point were pushed back.

Our correspondent says there is no clear frontline. The rebel position about 40km outside Freetown for example, appears to have pro-government soldiers on both sides of it.

The UN says it came under fire from rebels using rocket-propelled grenades and armoured personnel carriers at the strategically-important towns of Port Loko and Newton on Wednesday night.

The situation in the rest of the country remains unclear.

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See also:

11 May 00 | Africa
UN bolsters Freetown defences
10 May 00 | Africa
Nigeria sets intervention terms
09 May 00 | Africa
Can the UN force restore peace?
10 May 00 | Africa
Brutal child army grows up
10 May 00 | Africa
Where is Foday Sankoh?
09 May 00 | Africa
BBC's key role in Sierra Leone
04 May 00 | Africa
Renewed bid to free UN troops
10 May 00 | UK Politics
Cook faces Sierra Leone dilemma
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