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The BBC's Caroline Thomsett
"A further boost for the troubled UN mission"
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UN spokesperson Hirut Befacadu
"For the past fortnight the RUF has refused to let food supplies in"
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Sunday, 16 July, 2000, 00:45 GMT 01:45 UK
Freed UN troops head for safety
Unamsil
The UN operation in Sierra Leone is its biggest
Almost 200 United Nations peacekeepers in Sierra Leone have been making their way through rebel-held territory to try to reach safety after a dramatic breakout from rebel captivity.

The UN forces have met resistance, but the operation is going to plan according to a UN spokesman in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown.

They were among more than 230 military personnel who had been trapped for two months at a camp in Kailahun, in the east of the country.


British helicopter crews and UN forces began the rescue attempt at dawn on Saturday when they landed at the camp and airlifted out some 40 personnel, including 11 military observers - who have now been flown to safety in Freetown.

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, welcomed the rescue of the 40 soldiers and warned the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) not to impede the 200 troops making their way to safety.

According to the UN, heavy casualties were inflicted on the rebels, and two Indian UN troops were slightly injured in the breakout.

'Going to plan'

A spokesman for the UN mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil), Lieutenant Commander Patrick Coker, said the column of almost 200 peacekeepers, protected by Indian helicopter gunships, was making its way to safety after the breakout.

He said that, as the column made its way through the jungle, it had encountered pockets of resistance and rebel ambushes - but these had been dealt with and everything was going to plan.

Major Andy Harrison
Major Andy Harrison, a British military observer arrives back in Freetown
However another UN official, Major Rrun Anthanarayan, is reported to have described the situation as "still fluid".

In the joint UN-British air rescue on Saturday, RAF Chinook helicopters landed in the camp in which the UN soldiers were trapped, surrounded by rebels.

According to the UN, some 40 UN military personnel were on board the helicopters within just 30 seconds - a time scale that indicates careful planning and co-ordination.

The United Nations says that Indian, Nigerian and Ghanaian troops are involved in helping the rest of the UN personnel reach safety by land.

Annan warning

Kofi Annan was "gratified" that 40 personnel had escaped, and said that the remainder of the troops were making "good progress".

RUF soldier
The UN forces have met resistance from the rebels
His statement went on: "However, the United Nations forces have yet to cover some distance in a difficult area controlled by hostile rebels before reaching the nearest United Nations base at Daru.

"The secretary-general also, warns the RUF that it is in their interest not to oppose this legitimate effort and hopes that further violence can be avoided."

Distress call

The UN rescue mission was launched in response to a distress signal sent by the troops, who were encircled by rebels in the town of Kailahun, a rebel stronghold.

The troops had been detained in Kailahun since May, after the RUF broke a peace deal.

In the past two weeks, the rebels had refused to allow Unamsil to send food to the troops.

There are about 13,000 personnel in the UN's Sierra Leone force - the biggest UN peacekeeping operation in the world.

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See also:

04 Jul 00 | Africa
UN retakes key Sierra Leone town
19 Jun 00 | Africa
Freetown tense after shootings
12 May 00 | Africa
Foday Sankoh: Rebel leader
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