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British raid camp, free hostages in Sierra Leone

British troops Sunday made a surprise dawn attack on the jungle base of a renegade guerrilla gang in Sierra Leone and in a 90-minute gun battle, freed seven soldiers who had been taken hostage there last month, the ministry of defense said.

One British serviceman died, another was seriously wounded and 11 others suffered minor injuries in the rescue. The battle began after 150 paratroopers in military helicopters swooped in on the camp, which is located on a river in a lowland area of dense vegetation and swamp 50 miles east of Freetown, the capital.

Twenty-five members of the rebel militia group, known as The West Side Boys, were killed, and 18, including their leader, "Brigadier" Foday Kallay, were captured and turned over to the Sierra Leone government, British officials said.

The hostages freed from their mud and bamboo prison hut _ six of them British and the other from Sierra Leone _ were flown to the British naval vessel Sir Percivale, a logistic support ship anchored in Freetown harbor. They were reported by their commanding officer, Col. Simon Fordham, to be "mentally and physically exhausted" but unharmed.

Sir Charles Guthrie, a general and chief of the defense staff, said in London that the decision to carry out the risky military action was made after the rebel leaders' demands mounted dramatically and the lives of the hostages were thought to be in danger. During 16 days of talks, the British expressed public optimism about a satisfactory outcome of the negotiations, but Guthrie said Sunday that the talks "were getting nowhere."

He said the rebels staged "mock executions" and talked of plans to move their captives to hidden spots deeper in the jungle. He said the British had "painstakingly" mapped the location where the captives were being held and did not want to chance losing all contact.

The British hostages were part of the team of army trainers in Sierra Leone to rebuild the country's defense forces, which have been shattered in a ruthless war that has been going on for nearly a decade.

Three of the rebels who died in the raid were women, who Guthrie said had been fighting alongside the men.

"The West Side Boys were not a pushover _ they fought very hard," Guthrie said.