- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Agence France-Presse) — Authorities here tried urgently yesterday to arrange for an autopsy to determine how Hamish Sands, suspected of being a mercenary, died in a rebel jail in Ivory Coast.

Foreign Minister Phil Goff said the Red Cross had seen the body and indicated that Mr. Sands, whose full name was Brian Hamish Sands, had committed suicide, but that there was a possibility that “a third party” had been involved.

New Forces rebels said Tuesday that the 36-year-old died of natural causes, but his family said he was physically in good condition and unlikely to have taken his own life.

Mr. Sands, born in New Zealand, was detained in early March by elements of the New Forces, who said he was on a mission from the Ivory Coast government to kill their top leaders and carried documents and equipment implicating him in this mission.

“He died during the night,” Amadou Kone, a top aide to rebel leader Guillaume Soro, told Agence France-Presse by telephone from Bouake, in the center of the West African country.

“The body was found in his cell” in Korhogo in the far north, Mr. Kone said. “I don’t yet know the circumstances, but apparently the death was of natural causes.”

Mr. Sands’ sister, Catherine Sands-Wearing, said the family received a message from him on Saturday, a day after he was transferred from a rebel prison in Bouake to one in Korhogo.

“There was some humor in his message. He was an amazingly resilient person, and he seemed in very good spirits, considering the situation,” she said.

“Our understanding is that Hamish was in good physical condition, and we would like an autopsy on his body.

“We appeal to the New Forces to hold to their word and allow that autopsy to be performed … . Based on the information we have, we do not believe Hamish committed suicide.”

The body has been transferred to a French hospital in Bouake run by the aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), but Mr. Goff said there was no pathologist there.

“What we need to do now — and we don’t have much time, because the body will have to be buried within 48 hours unless refrigerated — is either get a pathologist to go to Bouake or try to get the body transferred to Abidjan, where there are proper morgue facilities,” Mr. Goff told New Zealand National Radio.

“But clearly we do need a proper examination of the body.”

Mr. Sands’ family previously said he had mental health problems, but was not suicidal.

The New Forces rebels had promised not to execute Mr. Sands, but had refused to hand him over to troops of the United Nations.

The rebels, who have run the Ivory Coast’s northern region since a 2002 rebellion, said Mr. Sands had told them he was a former New Zealand army captain and had served in the French Foreign Legion.

Mr. Goff said there was no record of him having served in the New Zealand army. The Foreign Legion said he was in its ranks for nine months, not eight years as he had said, before being dismissed for “incompatibility with military life.”

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