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Major Phil Ashby
"The first few hours that we were on the run, the adrenaline was pumping"
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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Jungle escape for British soldiers
Tired but safe: David Lingard, Paul Rowland and Andrew Samsonoff
Tired but safe: David Lingard, Paul Rowland and Andrew Samsonoff
Three British soldiers and a New Zealander have told of their remarkable escape into the jungle after being surrounded by rebel forces in Sierra Leone.

The four were among UN military observers working with Kenyan peacekeepers in the West African state when their town was besieged by the Revolutionary United Front.

Our feet are sore and we've got a plethora of exotic insect bites, but apart from that we're all fine

Major Phil Ashby

The group fled and trekked for three days to another town, from where they were airlifted to safety.

The news came as UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook insisted that British troops in Sierra Leone would retaliate if attacked by rebels.

Mr Cook confirmed that British forces would continue to hold the airport in the capital, Freetown, for up to a month while UN reinforcements arrived, a statement attacked by Tories as a "change of position".

My advice to the rebels is 'Don't even think about it'

Robin Cook

Calling for a Commons statement on the role of British forces, Tory leader William Hague said: "It is vital that we know what the future holds for the British troops in Sierra Leone."

Paratroops landed on Monday to help the evacuation of Britons from Freetown after fears that Sierra Leone was sliding back into civil war.

On Friday, the Foreign Office said the situation remained volatile but there were signs of greater stability, partly due to the British presence.

A spokesman said rebel forces had not made any significant advances towards Freetown for 72 hours.

He added: "Part of that is down to the British military deployment and what we have done diplomatically with allies and the international community."


Major Phil Ashby, one of the four who escaped from the rebels, said the group were "all fine" after their ordeal.

The Royal Marine told the BBC that he and his colleagues - Major Andrew Samsonoff, 26, Lieutenant Commander Paul Rowland, 31, and New Zealander Major David Lingard, 37 - had fled because they had felt they were sitting targets in the town of Makeni.

"Some of the information we were getting from local civilians was that hostility was directed mainly at us, first of all for being British and secondly for being involved in the disarmament process," he said.

Major Phil Ashby
Phil Ashby: "Hostility was directed at us because we were British"

Major Ashby, 30, from Helensburgh, near Dumbarton, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the four had had to scale a wall to leave the town during the night-time RUF curfew.

"For the first few hours the adrenaline was pumping and we were very relieved to actually get out of a bustling market town.

"It was fair to assume that anyone we saw on the streets was actually in the RUF," he added.

"We saw several people on the way out - whether they saw us I'm not sure but I'm six foot four, and I'm a gangly white man and I'm sure they would have realised I wasn't a local."

Stagnant water

Acting on advice of a group of Kenyans, who had escaped from a different location, the men decided to head for the UN outpost at Magburaka, 40 miles away.

They trekked through the jungle by night and hid in thickets by day to avoid being seen.

"Our main problem was lack of water. It's still the dry season here and although there were rivers marked on our maps, in practice they were in fact pools of stagnant water.

"We've been drinking some unusually coloured water, shall we say."

He added: "Our feet are all quite sore and we've got a plethora of exotic insect bites and we're all suffering from prickly heat and a bit of sunburn, but apart from that we're all fine".

Before setting out on their journey, Major Ashby had contacted his wife, Anna, in the UK by satellite phone. She alerted British officials that the group were on their way.

The plan was to remain in contact with military officials during the trek but the phone's batteries died after 24 hours.


"We did at one stage come to a friendly village where we bought every radio battery in the village and with the help of our naval officer, who is a fully qualified nuclear engineer, we attempted to improvise a battery - but sadly it didn't work," Major Ashby said.

However, on arrival at the town of Magburaka, they managed to contact British forces and were airlifted to Freetown by Chinook helicopter.

The men, who have been serving in Sierra Leone for four months, plan to return to work immediately.

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12 May 00 | Africa
Plea for Sierra Leone
11 May 00 | Africa
UN bolsters Freetown defences
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