- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone With a dawn strike on a swampy base belonging to a maverick army gang, British troops ended a two-week hostage drama yesterday and freed all six British officers and a Sierra Leonean soldier held captive. One British paratrooper was killed.

The rescue mission, authorized by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sierra Leone President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, was carried out after the captors "threatened repeatedly to kill the hostages" in this war-ravaged West African country, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said.

Helicopter-borne British paratroopers exchanged heavy fire with the Sierra Leone renegades, the West Side Boys, at their creek-side base surrounded by mangrove swamps and jungle, British Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Sir Charles Guthrie said.

A paratrooper was killed while carrying out the rescue operation and another was seriously injured, although his wounds were not considered life-threatening, a British Defense Ministry spokesman said. Another 11 British soldiers suffered less-serious wounds.

"These casualties are regrettable, but are at the low end of the scale for such a difficult and complex operation," the spokesman said. "Our thoughts are with the families of all those involved."

Twenty-five members of the West Side Boys, including three female fighters, also were killed and 18, including gang leader "Brigadier" Foday Kallay, were captured by the British, the spokesman said.

A senior U.N. peacekeeping officer, Jordanian Brig. Ahmed Serhan, said an unknown number of renegades surrendered to U.N. troops.

Those who did not voluntarily give themselves up "face the full penalty of the law," Sierra Leone Information Minister Julius Spencer warned without elaborating.

"It was a very difficult operation," Mr. Spencer said. "We hope this sends a message to [Sierra Leone rebel groups] to give up their arms."

The rescue mission centered on the West Side Boys' camp in the Occra Hills, where the hostages had been held since Aug. 25. The base is some 45 miles east of the capital, Freetown.

British paratroopers freed the hostages during the first 20 minutes of the operation by swooping into three strategic points near where the hostages were held, Gen. Guthrie said. Yet nine hours later, British army spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tony Cramp said the mission was still continuing "in its conclusive phase" to retrieve British vehicles and weapons captured by the rebels. He did not elaborate.

Brig. Serhan said U.N. and British troops continued to patrol the area to ensure there were no remaining pockets of renegades. Jordanian U.N. soldiers were reinforcing all roads into the area.

Britain coordinated closely with Sierra Leone government forces and the U.N. peacekeeping force here, said Brig. Gordon Hughes, commander of British forces in Sierra Leone. He said his troops carried out their task with "surgical" precision.

The rescue operation came weeks after the West Side Boys captured 11 British soldiers and a Sierra Leonean soldier Aug. 25. Five British officers were freed Aug. 30.

British officials feared for the safety of the hostages. The West Side Boys are a notoriously undisciplined faction with a reputation for widespread drunkenness and drug use. The gang, which has fought both the Sierra Leone government and rebels of the country's brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF), is accused of human rights atrocities, including killing and mutilating civilians.

The rescue mission took several days of planning and British negotiators had been prepared to abort the mission at the last moment in the event that talks began to bear fruit, Gen. Guthrie said.

The hostages were members of the 1st Irish Regiment, a team of British army trainers who are helping rebuild Sierra Leone's defense force so it can fight the country's RUF rebels. The rebel group is responsible for the deaths and intentional mutilation of tens of thousands of civilians since war began in 1991.

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