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Sierra Leone Hostages To Be Freed

August 10, 1999

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ A former junta official returned to his ex-colleagues’ camp to negotiate the release of hostages in a crisis that has highlighted divisions among Sierra Leone’s rebels.

Shortly after Idriss Kamara returned to the forest outside Freetown, the former junta soldiers freed four U.N. military observers and a Sierra Leonean journalist Monday night and promised to free the rest of their prisoners today, a top government official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, refused to provide further details, except to say that one U.N. observer had asked to stay behind as a confidence-building measure to ensure the freedom of the rest of the hostages.

British Foreign Office minister Peter Hain confirmed Monday that the last three British soldiers held were freed Monday night and had reached the capital, Freetown.

The release of the Sierra Leonean journalist could not be independently confirmed.

Earlier Monday, Abdulai Mustapha, a special assistant to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, said Kamara had returned to the camp to seek the release of about 20 people.

About 35 people were taken hostage Wednesday, sparking a crisis that has jeopardized this West African nation’s fragile peace, though more than a dozen have since been freed.

It was not immediately clear if Kamara, who was a high-level junta official and is now a top adviser to rebel Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh, had left the camp Monday night.

The remaining hostages include 10 soldiers from the West African intervention force known as ECOMOG and two members of the Sierra Leone army.

Kamara was captured by his former junta colleagues Friday after he tried to negotiate a hostage release. He was freed Sunday morning with five U.N. drivers, but returned that night to help negotiate the release of 13 more hostages.

The Sunday releases brought 19 people out of a jungle hideaway where one freed hostage said as many as 2,000 disenchanted members of the former junta are based.

``They treated us fine,″ Chernor Bangura, a cameraman for Sierra Leone state television, said in a telephone interview. ``We were given one meal a day and tea in the morning.″

The junta, led by Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma, governed Sierra for 10 months beginning in June 1997, ending when the military regime was ousted by ECOMOG.

The kidnappings took place during what was to have been a handover of some 150 civilians abducted by the gunmen during Sierra Leone’s eight-year civil war. But after freeing a handful of hostages, the ex-junta soldiers instead seized the group that had come to receive the prisoners.

The kidnappers have demanded food and medical supplies and asked for the release of Koroma, who they claimed had been detained by the RUF rebels. Koroma has denied that he is a prisoner.

At a news conference Monday in neighboring Monrovia, Liberia, Koroma predicted the kidnappings would not derail the peace process.

``In every peace process you must expect some hitches along the line,″ he said.

While the former junta soldiers remain theoretically allied to the RUF rebels, their relations have been strained. Many former junta soldiers say they felt excluded when the RUF rebels signed a peace treaty with the government last month, formally ending the civil war.

More than 10,000 people were killed in the war and many more maimed in a campaign of terror.

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