In an unprecedented step, Peter Penfold, the High Commissioner for Sierra Leone, is to be interviewed this week by officers from the National Investigation Service(NIS), an arm of HM Customs and Excise. The move follows claims that Mr Penfold may have asked the mercenaries to help overthrow a regime which had taken power a year earlier.
Former British officer Lt-Col Tim Spicer, who was involved in the alleged plot, said last night that he "understood and still believe that we were acting with the approval of Her Majesty's Government in assisting to restore President Kabbah".
Tory MP John Redwood demanded that the Government make it clear whether there had been any collusion. "I want Robin Cook to come before the Commons and say what has been happening," he said. "We need to get to the bottom of this."
The allegations centre on Mr Penfold's links with the "military consultants" Sandline International and its chief executive Lt-Col Spicer. The Foreign Office admitted last March that Mr Penfold had spoken to Sandline, but refused to say what the conversations had been about. The discussions took place in Conkarry, Guinea, where Sierra Leone's elected president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, had been exiled following a coup in May 1997.
The NIS officers will question Mr Penfold, a career diplomat and former governor of the British Virgin Islands, about Sandline's supply of 30 tonnes of arms and training to rebels supporting Mr Kabbah and the Nigerian army which also backed him. "Central to the inquiry will be whether Mr Penfold knew about the arms supply and whether he was involved," a Customs source said.
The arms and ammunition were flown into the former colony of Sierra Leone from Bulgaria on or around 21 February. Mr Kabbah, who attended the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh last year while still in exile, was restored to power in March.
Any shipment of arms would have breached UN sanctions, imposed on Sierra Leone last November. However, Sandline's solicitors yesterday claimed the company had committed no offence.
Yesterday, the Foreign Office said there had been no ministerial approval for Sandline's actions and that it was carrying out its own inquiry.
Last night at Westminster it was felt the affair had the potential to be very embarrassing to the Government. There was also a feeling that Mr Penfold may be used as a scapegoat to allow the Government to distance itself from the incident. Guns for hire, page 3Reuse content