By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Negotiations are under way with a maverick Sierra Leone rebel group in an effort to secure the release of 11 members of Britain’s Royal Irish Regiment – 10 of whom are from Ireland.
The notorious Westside Boys captured them last Friday in circumstances that are still unclear.
The soldiers, eight of whom are believed to be from Northern Ireland and two from the Republic, are being held in a remote jungle region.
The Westside Boys group, which is estimated to number about 400, was initially believed to be seeking the release of one of their leaders variously known as "Bomb Blast" or "General Papa."
They may, however, be looking for food and medicine in exchange for the captured soldiers.
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A spokesman at RIR headquarters in Canterbury said it was "quietly optimistic" the situation would be resolved.
The RIR has had contact with the patrol leader, who said the soldiers are in good health and being reasonably well looked after.
On Monday, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said he expected the kidnapped soldiers to be released "in the near future."
The militia members include unpredictable child soldiers and wears a bizarre mix of clothing.
They were loosely allied to the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council and supported the former military dictator, Major Johnny Paul Koroma. They remain rebels despite the fact that Koroma is now a member of the Sierra Leone government.
They have a reputation for being hotheaded, trigger happy, often being drunk and setting up checkpoints that are used as opportunities to extort money from travelers.
British troops were sent into the war-torn country in May to bolster a UN force, evacuate foreign nationals and secure the capital Freetown from capture by rebel forces.
The RIR are part of a 200-strong training and advisory team who have remained to work with the Sierra Leone government.
The troops involved are all experienced and had recently seen service in Kosovo as part of the UN team there.