Cook aide accuses DTI over Indonesian arms

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The Independent Online
OPEN WARFARE broke out in the Cabinet yesterday over the sales of arms to Indonesia, with one of Robin Cook's closest aides accusing the Department of Trade and Industry of bowing to "merciless" business pressures.

Ken Purchase, the Foreign Secretary's parliamentary private secretary, defended Mr Cook's role over the Government's aid to the Indonesian regime blamed for the atrocities in East Timor.

Mr Purchase broke the unwritten code of silence for the PPSs, who are normally the "eyes and ears" for cabinet ministers, to defend Mr Cook from the charge of hypocrisy over his "ethical" foreign policy.

But the intervention backfired when Mr Purchase openly blamed the DTI ministers, Stephen Byers and his predecessor, Peter Mandelson, for forcing Mr Cook to accept a compromise, until the decision on Saturday to suspend the sale of Hawk jets by British Aerospace to Indonesia.

His remarks on BBC radio brought out into the open the cabinet conflict over the ethical foreign policy reported yesterday in The Independent.

Mr Purchase said: "In the end, all of these things are a compromise. Robin did everything he possibly could to progress with policies which he felt were right. In the end you make an agreement with your colleagues. The DTI was very anxious to be a friend of business and industry. Business and industry mercilessly exploits that position. At the end of all that rearguard action, or whatever else you call it, reason has, I believe, prevailed."

The Tory spokesman on defence, Iain Duncan Smith, said: "This is another example of Labour hypocrisy. The moment pressure or problems occur their self-declared unity breaks apart. They are now at each other's throats."

The suspension of the Hawk contracts was hurriedly agreed in talks with Tony Blair on Saturday, but Downing Street was highly reluctant, and is said by Mr Cook's allies to have played a decisive role earlier in watering down Mr Cook's policy on arms sales to questionable regimes. Defence ministers have also lobbied strenuously within Government against Mr Cook for the arms sales to Indonesia to go ahead, in spite of protests by civil rights groups who said they were being used for internal repression.

The row over British aid to help Indonesia finance its arms contracts with British companies led to fresh calls for more openness about the Government's handling of arms contracts. The Liberal Democrat Lord Avebury, chairman of the Parliamentary human rights group and the East Timor campaign group, said: "We need a public airing of objections to arms sales and a tribunal to see whether they fall within the guidelines."

British Aerospace defended its controversial sale of Hawk jets to Indonesia just before violence erupted in East Timor, saying it was abiding by contracts stipulated by the Government.