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The BBC's Francesca Kasteliz
"News is seeping through that the hostages are being well looked after"
 real 56k

British Army spokesman Paul Beard
"Radio contact with them was lost more than 24 hours ago"
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Sunday, 27 August, 2000, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Effort to free captive soldiers
british troops in sierra leone
British troops have been training local soldiers
United Nations officials in Sierra Leone have been in touch with the rebel group holding British troops hostage.

They said they were hopeful of a successful conclusion to the talks very soon.

The eleven members of the Royal Irish Regiment, together with a soldier from Sierra Leone, were kidnapped on Friday outside the capital, Freetown, by a militia group known as the West Side Boys.

A former leader of the group has been contacted to arrange a meeting to negotiate the soldiers' release.

Sierra Leone information minister Dr Julius Spencer said the soldiers, 10 of whom are from Northern Ireland, did not appear to have been harmed, but he described the West Side Boys as "unpredictable bandits".

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) said one of the soldiers contacted their headquarters on Friday to say they were being held, but were in good health.

The MoD added that it had informed all the families of the men concerned.

The rebel group, made up of ex-soldiers from the old Sierra Leonean Army, claims allegiance to the country's former military junta, and has recently become involved in a dispute with the current government.

The soldiers' capture comes a day after the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced plans to boost the size of the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone.

An MoD spokesman said that "intensive efforts", including extensive helicopter searches had been made to find the soldiers

The spokesman added that "that there are well practice procedures for dealing with the situation" and that they weree doing all they could to have the 11 men returned safely.

However, he refused to speculate on which group might be holding the men, or what motives their captors might have.

The soldiers had been posted in the town of Benguema, one of the locations in the troubled African country where British troops are training government forces.

British troops were sent into the country in May, to evacuate foreign nationals and train the Sierra Leone army as the rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front, advanced on the capital Freetown.

It is unknown if the missing unit was in a training or peacekeeping role.

British soldier in Sierra Leone
The soldiers were reportedly on patrol
Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war is bound up with the struggle for control over the country's vast diamond resources.

Years of corruption followed the end of British rule in 1961, as a powerful elite in the capital kept the rest of the country in poverty.

The rural poor grew increasingly resentful, so that when the rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was created, there was no shortage of recruits.

The RUF is fighting both the government and the UN peacekeeping force which includes Indian, Nigerian and Ghanaian troops.

The UK Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said Britain should not rule out using force to rescue the soldiers.

He said: "Having recently visited Sierra Leone myself, I'm only too aware just how fragile and dangerous conditions are for British troops.

"Every effort must be made to secure their early release and we should not rule out the use of force if that's what it takes," he said.

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See also:

26 Aug 00 | African
Annan pushes for more troops
04 Jun 00 | Africa
UN investigates hostage crisis
19 May 00 | Africa
Concern over missing UN troops
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