The Prime Minister said that while sanctions should never be broken, Peter Penfold, the High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, had "done a superb job". Mr Blair's backing of his diplomat, seen as a softening of the Government's line on the "Arms to Africa" crisis, came as more details emerged over the role of the Foreign Office minister, Tony Lloyd, in the operation to restore the elected president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
The Independent has learnt that key members of a network linked to the mercenaries were invited to a conference organised by the Foreign Office at which Mr Lloyd was a guest speaker. At the conference on 20 October, held to discuss the restoration of the deposed President Kabbah, Mr Lloyd said: "The message to [the rebels], and let me make this absolutely clear, must be to get out while the possibility of doing so peacefully still remains."
It also emerged yesterday that British officials may have been involved in the planning of the counter- coup, which saw President Kabbah restored to power in March this year. Lt-Col Graham McKinley, the former defence attache to Sierra Leone, said that last autumn members of the Ministry of Defence debriefing staff spent four hours interviewing him about the terrain and logistical situation in the country. He said he believed the information was being gathered in advance of some sort of military operation. "I provided information that may have helped Ecomog [the group of West African states seeking to reinstate President Kabbah] or whoever," he said.
Mr Lloyd has insisted he was not aware the plan to restore Mr Kabbah involved Sandline, the "military consultants" headed by the former British Army officer Tim Spicer. However, many people at the conference at which he spoke were aware that President Kabbah and his exiled government were negotiating with Sandline to provide weapons and training.
Among these individuals was Rupert Bowen, a former diplomat employed by Branch Energy, a mining company partly owned by Tony Buckingham, who is closely linked to Sandline. His firm shares a London address with Sandline. Mr Bowen, the former first secretary to Namibia, is considered a key member of the Sandline network. Robert Brown, another Branch Energy employee, was also at the conference.
Also present was John Hirsch, the US ambassador to Sierra Leone. Last week Sandline said it had regularly briefed him on its operation. In addition to President Kabbah, members of his exiled government who arranged the deal with Sandline were also present.
The Foreign Office last night issued a qualified denial of allegations that papers relating to Sandline's involvement in Sierra Leone had been passed to the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's private office in early March. "The first papers Mr Cook saw and the first time he was informed was 28April," a spokesman said. There was also a report last night that Foreign Office officials had told Sandline it should not break the law in dealings with the state.
Mr Blair yesterday described the growing political row over Sandline's shipment of arms to Sierra Leone in apparent breach of UN and EU sanctions as a "hoo-haa".
He said: "Let's not forget that both the UN and the UK were trying to help the democratically elected regime to restore its position from an illegal military coup. It was a democratically elected regime that people were trying to help. They were quite right in trying to do it. Nobody should ever act in breach of a UN arms embargo, but Mr Penfold did a superb job last year in dealing with the consequences of the May coup. That is the background, and people can see that a lot of the hoo-ha is overblown."
William Hague, the Conservative leader, said the comments were "a sign of the panic which is gripping the Government". And he went on: "His comments not only undermine the Customs and Excise investigation into allegations of criminal misconduct, but also contradict the Foreign Secretary's statements to date. The confusion over the Government's position has deepened and we still don't know whether ministers are telling the full story."
Later, in the House of Lords, the Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons suggested that arms shipments to the exiled Sierra Leone government were illegal whether or not they were shipped directly to the country. "As I understand it, the Sierra Leone UN sanctions order prohibited sale or supply of arms ... for the purpose of delivery directly or indirectly or to the order of a person connected with Sierra Leone," she said.
The Independent understands that four shipments of up to 120 tonnes of arms were sent to President Kabbah in Conakry, Guinea, and in Freetown.
The Sierra Leone conference was held in October at the Royal Overseas League, a private club in central London. The programme noted: "The coup has had serious negative consequences for the country and the livelihood of its citizens. It has regrettably reversed the gains in economic and social reforms, disrupted economic activities and weakened investor and business confidence."Reuse content