Cook may stop MPs quizzing Africa official

Click to follow
ROBIN COOK may try to prevent MPs from questioning Peter Penfold, the Sierra Leone High Commissioner, over the "Arms to Africa" affair, The Independent has learnt.

The Foreign Secretary's most senior official, Sir John Kerr, has told him Mr Penfold should not give evidence to a Foreign Affairs committee inquiry. MPs want to question him about meetings he held with mercenaries who breached a UN arms embargo when they helped to restore Sierra Leone's government after a coup. The military consultants, Sandline International, escaped prosecution after telling British customs officials that its operation had the support of the Foreign Office.

Pressure was mounting on Mr Cook last night to ignore the advice from Sir John, though. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has written to ask Mr Cook why its request for a meeting with Mr Penfold, sent two weeks ago, had not been answered.

News was also breaking yesterday of mass executions in the beleaguered former British colony, and MPs argued that it was now essential Mr Penfold appeared in person.

The committee's relations with Mr Cook have already been strained by wrangling over the release of documents and telegrams relating to the affair. Although an official inquiry into the affair by Sir Thomas Legg concluded ministers knew nothing of the Sandline deal, it also found that Mr Penfold and other Foreign Office officials had met the firm's representatives.

The committee has written to Mr Cook to ask for hearings with himself, Sir John Kerr, officials from the Foreign Office's Equatorial Africa desk and Mr Penfold. The committee chairman, Donald Anderson, has already said it might be unfair to junior officials to force them to give evidence. Now it seems Sir John wants to keep publicity to a minimum by refusing to allow Mr Penfold to appear.

Foreign Office sources indicated earlier in the week that Mr Cook would decide if Mr Penfold could appear, but last night officials connected with the committee said he had no right to do so. The rules allowed the committee to call whoever it chose, they said, though Mr Cook could instruct a witness to refuse to answer certain questions.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "I am sure Mr Cook will want to take a view." Mr Cook has been in Bulgaria this week.

On Monday 24 soldiers in the West African state were executed for their part in the coup that temporarily exiled President Kabbah. A total of 16 more people convicted of treason are on death row, including a number of journalists. One of them is believed to be a British citizen.

The Foreign Office minister, Tony Lloyd, intervened unsuccessfully to try to prevent Monday's shootings, but yesterday the Prime Minister's official spokesman described the dead as "unattractive" people who had been involved in a bloodthirsty coup.

One Foreign Affairs committee member, the Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, said the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister should have stepped in to try to prevent the executions.

"I would condemn any executions but I also want to know what sort of trials were held and whether Peter Penfold attended them," he said.