Cook defies demand to show arms telegrams

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ROBIN COOK last night defied a demand by a powerful Commons select committee to disclose to MPs five telegrams which could prove that officials knew about the involvement of British mercenaries in the fight to free Sierra Leone after a coup.

The Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee that it could not have the telegrams sent from the High Commission in Freetown until after the completion of Sir Thomas Legg's internal investigation into whether ministers misled Parliament by saying they were not aware of the involvement of the British military consultancy Sandline in the operation to free the country.

"The Government cannot disclose information which falls within the remit of Sir Thomas Legg's investigation while it is in progress because to do so could prejudice it," Mr Cook said in a letter to Donald Anderson, Labour chairman of the committee. "It is also Sir Thomas Legg's view that the release of documents now could be damaging to the prospects for the early completion of a comprehensive and consistent report."

His reply is certain to upset Tory members of the committee who were enraged last week when a similar argument was put forward by Sir John Kerr, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office. He was forced to answer questions, and it could lead to demands for the committee to flex it muscles against the Foreign Secretary. It has the power to call for papers and people, regardless of internal inquiries, and the Tories will want to see it uphold its independence from the Government.

Mr Cook's refusal to surrender the telegrams came as the Foreign Office minister in the Lords, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, denied misleading peers about her knowledge of the arms-to-Africa affair. Responding to an emergency question, she said: "I did not deliberately mislead this House ... I did not do so inadvertently either."

She defended her failure to tell peers in question-time exchanges on 10 March of the Customs investigation into Sandline over alleged breaches of the United Nations arms embargo on Sierra Leone.

It would have been "highly prejudicial and quite wrong" to have disclosed the inquiry at that stage, she insisted.

Rejecting claims of a cover-up of the Customs investigation as "absurd", Lady Symons, the former head of the Civil Service First Division Association, said the focus should be on events in Sierra Leone, not on the "minutiae" of "pieces of paper in London".

She said to have announced the Customs inquiry on 10 March would have been "highly prejudicial" and would have alerted those under investigation.

But her assurances were rejected by Michael Howard, shadow Foreign Secretary, who said last night that she had failed to answer why Tony Lloyd, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa, made no mention of the investigation during a Commons debate two days later.

Her robust stand has left Sir John Kerr in a difficult position. It was Sir John who told the Foreign Affairs Committee last week that Lady Symons had been briefed on 10 March.

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