A CRACK unit from the Irish Army Ranger Wing has rescued a group of captive villagers who were being beaten and raped by gunmen from renegade Government of Liberia (GOL) forces.
Twenty heavily armed Rangers, part of a special UN operations task group, stormed a container where the 35 men and women were being held prisoner and rescued them.
The Ranger patrol detained the renegade commander, known as "Prince", and the deputy commander of the GOL forces during the rescue operation.
The rest of the kidnap gang is believed to have fled across the border into Guinea.
Acting on an intelligence tip-off, the Irish troops were dropped by helicopter into the town of Gbapa in the northern sector of Nimba county and about 300 kilometres north-east of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
To avoid casualties among the hostages, the Rangers decided on a policy of non-lethal intervention and, after surrounding a 40-foot container containing the hostages, rescued them.
The Rangers also detained the leaders of the rebel troops without any injuries.
The two suspects, who are part of a group loyal to former Liberian president Charles Taylor, were then handed over to local police following the rescue on Tuesday evening and were transferred for questioning yesterday to a police station in Monrovia.
Many of the hostages were taken to a medical centre for treatment by local doctors and Irish medics as a result of the rapes and beatings inflicted upon them while in captivity.
The GOL is party to an agreement on decommissioning which came into effect late last year but renegade groups are known to have been coming across the border from neighbouring Guinea and looting the villages.
Residents who show resistance to the pillaging are rounded up and held hostage by the renegades. The group confronted by the Rangers was carrying AK-47 rifles, small arms, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
The 20-man patrol represents half of the deployment from the Ranger Wing in the Irish contingent.
The Rangers arrived in Liberia last November and one was killed and another seriously injured in a road accident a week after operations began.
The elite group is part of a contingent of more than 400 troops from the Defence Forces. The Irish are being deployed as a rapid reaction force for the United Nations mission and have a pathfinding role as the peacekeepers move out of the capital and into areas of jungle.
Last night Defence Minister Michael Smith paid tribute to the troops.
"I am delighted that the brave and decisive action by our troops has led to these people being rescued from a dangerous situation and uncertain fate."
Mr Smith said the Government had sent troops to the UN mission to assist in restoring peace and to ensure that the civilian population in Liberia would have their basic human rights restored after a long, cruel, and bloody conflict.
"We are proud of their success," he said.