Captive New Zealander dies in rebel jail

A New Zealander, held captive for almost a month by Ivorian rebels on suspicion of being a mercenary working for the government, has died in a rebel jail, Red Cross and rebel officials said on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the New Forces rebel movement said Brian Hamish Sands (36) was found dead in his prison cell in the northern town of Korhogo on Monday night.

The New Zealander, who was said by his family to have mental health problems, had apparently died of natural causes, rebel spokesperson Amadou Kone said in a statement.

“The New Forces pledge that all possible light will be shed on the actual circumstances of this death, although the indications are that he died of natural causes,” Kone said.

A United Nations source said Sands’s body was transferred from Korhogo to the rebel capital, Bouake, in central Côte d’Ivoire.

Both cities lie in the northern half of Côte d’Ivoire, which fell to rebel forces soon after civil war broke out in September 2002. The southern half of the West African country is controlled by forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo.

Sands was detained by the rebels on March 11 as he was travelling overland from the capital Abidjan, across the frontline to Bouake.

The rebels said he was carrying a bullet-proof jacket, navigational equipment and an address book filled with telephone numbers for loyalist officials. They also said Sands had admitted to serving as a soldier with the French Foreign Legion and New Zealand army.

Several reports by UN human right experts over the past year have criticised the conditions in which the Ivorian rebels hold detainees.

But Kone said that Sands had been well cared for.

“The New Forces reassure his family, the New Zealand government and the international community that all measures were taken to offer Mr Sands the best conditions of detention,” he said.

Issia Doumbia, another rebel spokesperson, also denied suggestions that the New Zealander had been mistreated.
Asked if Sands had been beaten up, Doumbia said: “No, no, no, he has never been subject to any bullying.”

Following Sands’s arrest, the New Zealand government, which has no representation in Côte d’Ivoire, said the man had exaggerated his past military career. It also questioned his mental competence.

Sands was initially detained in Bouake but rebel officials said he was transferred to Korhogo, 200km to the north, last Friday “for security reasons”.

Kim Gordon-Bates, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Côte d’Ivoire, confirmed Sands’s death. He said the organisation had visited the New Zealander in Bouake on Thursday, shortly before he was moved, but refused to give further details.

Sands died as rebel leader Guillaume Soro held a third day of South African-mediated talks in Pretoria with Gbagbo and Ivorian opposition leaders on implementing a stalled peace agreement that is in danger of collapsing.—Irin

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