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Renegades suspected of capturing Brit soldiers

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Eleven British soldiers have been seized in this war-torn West African country, but the identity of their captors isn't known, the British Ministry of Defense said Saturday.

British forces lost contact with the soldiers Friday around the towns of Masiaka and Forudugu, about 45 miles east of the capital, Freetown, force commander Brig. Gordon Hughes said in a statement. A radio message received from the group Saturday indicated they were being held against their will, a Ministry of Defense spokesman said later in London.

"We believe they are all well," the spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.

The British troops were stationed at Benguema, about 25 miles east of Freetown, where British instructors are training Sierra Leonean army recruits. They were accompanied by a government soldier, who was acting as their guide and was also believed to have been captured.

The troops disappeared in an area occupied by a small and ruthless renegade faction known as the West Side Boys, British force spokesman Capt. John Price said.

Until June, the West Side Boys were part of a fragile pro-government alliance fighting Sierra Leone's feared Revolutionary United Front rebels. But the faction fell out with the authorities after allegedly attacking other pro-government fighters and carrying out a spree of carjackings, robberies and rapes.

Since Sierra Leone's civil war began in 1991, the rebels have systematically killed and maimed tens of thousands of people in an attempt to gain control of the government and the country's lucrative diamond-mining regions. They have abandoned three peace treaties, the latest signed July last year.

Britain sent 1,000 soldiers to Freetown when the RUF rebels reignited the conflict in May, seizing 500 U.N. peacekeepers and advancing toward the capital. While the troops ostensibly went to evacuate foreigners and secure the airport, their presence did much to stabilize the situation.

The hostages were eventually released and a successful rescue operation was mounted to free 233 other U.N. troops surrounded in rebel territory. Meanwhile, a ragtag alliance of pro-government forces, backed by Britain, began pushing the rebels away from Freetown.

When the British withdrew in mid-June, they left behind soldiers to train Sierra Leone army recruits.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Friday for the 13,000-member peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone to be beefed up to 20,500 troops.