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Hopes still high for release of British soldiers in Sierra Leone


In this story:

Search for troops continues

Former Junta leader adds voice to soldiers' release


RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow


FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Negotiators were "confident" Monday that 12 soldiers being held hostage in Sierra Leone will be freed soon.

The soldiers, 11 Britons and one from Sierre Leone, were captured on Friday by a group of rebel soldiers calling themselves the West Side Boys.

They have reportedly demanded the release of one of their leaders, variously known as "Bomb Blast" or General Papa, from prison.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan confirmed negotiations were under way with the kidnappers and that he expected a breakthrough "in the near future."

The West Side Boys are a group of soldiers from the former Sierra Leone army that claims allegiance to the military junta that ruled the country between 1997 and 1998.

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Crisis in Sierra Leone
 
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Military observers with the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), and Sierra Leone's Government are in talks with the renegade soldiers as are British representatives.

A UK Ministry of Defence spokesman told CNN.com: "We are aiming to resolve it [the hostage situation] peacefully, and feel confident we can do so.

"We are in discussions and close contact with those who are thought to be holding the soldiers."

Additional British staff have been sent to Sierra Leone to support the British commanding officer.

UNAMSIL military spokesman Patrick Coker told radio Pro-Democracy 98.1 that the U.N. was in daily contact with the West Side Boys, and that the abducted soldiers were understood to be "well and safe."

Coker added: "UNAMSIL's position in Sierra Leone is for peace. We are not going to use force. We believe that by the efforts of UNAMSIL, the government and the British themselves they will be released very soon."

Search for troops continues

Military sources said an intensive hunt for the men by British, Sierra Leone and U.N. troops continued despite a helicopter search proving fruitless on Sunday.

The 11 soldiers, from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, and a Sierra Leonean soldier went missing on Friday in the Masiaka-Forodugu area about 100 km (60 miles) east of Freetown.

About 400 British troops have been training Sierra Leonean army recruits and the kidnapping will not stop their continued role, the MOD spokesman said. British soldiers intervened in May when rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) took hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers hostage and a civil war peace agreement fell apart. The U.N. hostages were later released and Britain withdrew most of its forces, except for the training detachment.

Former Junta leader adds voice to soldiers' release

Former junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma called on Sunday for the release of the hostages.

In a letter to the fighters, Koroma said: "The continued holding of people coming to Sierra Leone to assist in the peace process does not augur well. I therefore ask you that, the earlier the better, you free the British soldiers."

He also called on them to hand over their military weapons to the U.N. peacekeepers and "join the peace process."

The West Side Boys have disregarded earlier appeals from Koroma to surrender. The West Side Boys at first fought alongside government forces in May against their former allies in the RUF but they took to the hills when the makeshift alliance unravelled.

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:

RELATED SITES:
Sierra Leone on the Web
Sierra Leone Civil Defense Force
UNHCR Country Profile: Sierra Leone
Amnesty International 1999 Annual Report on Sierra Leone

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