15 Hostages Freed in Sierra Leone
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Former junta soldiers freed their remaining prisoners today, ending a five-day hostage crisis, Sierra Leone’s information minister said.
Julius Spencer said at news conference that the rogue rebels had freed 15 West African intervention force soldiers, a U.N. military observer and some 200 civilians.
``All the hostages have been released,″ Spencer said. ``The hostage drama is over in Sierra Leone.″
His account was confirmed by Brig. Gen. Subhash Joshi, the United Nation’s chief military observer.
A former junta official returned to his ex-colleagues’ camp Monday night to negotiate the release of hostages. The seizure of the hostages highlighted divisions among Sierra Leone’s rebels, who fought an 8-year civil war for control of the West African nation.
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.
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 people have since been freed.
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.
``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 Leone for 10 months beginning in June 1997, ending when the military regime was ousted by the West African intervention force.
The kidnappings took place during what was to have been a handover of some 150 civilians abducted by the gunmen during Sierra Leone’s civil war. But after freeing a few hostages, the ex-junta soldiers instead seized the group that had come to receive the prisoners.
Former hostages say as many as 2,000 disenchanted members of the former junta may be living in the jungle hideaway where the prisoners were being held.
A U.S. Embassy official, meanwhile, said a team of staffers from the House Appropriations Committee and the International Relations Committee today flew to Sierra Leone’s interior accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Joe Melrose. The nature of the trip to Kenema, a pro-government town not far from a key rebel base, was not immediately clear.