Cook: My officials are in the clear

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ROBIN Cook yesterday pre-empted part of the Customs and Excise investigation into the Sierra Leone arms affair by clearing his officials of any part in a plot to breach the UN arms embargo.

Showing all the fire for which he made his name in the House, the Foreign Secretary declared the innocence of Foreign Office staff, accused the Sandline mercenary group of lying in a bid to clear its name, and repudiated allegations that he was a shirker who did not read his Red Box papers.

At the end of an hour's cross- examination, he told Michael Howard, the opposition spokesman, that he felt sorry for him: "Every radio broadcast today has promised that there's going to be an hour on the rack for me here. I have to say it has been quite a pleasant interlude."

A day of Government fightback began with the Prime Minister's official spokesman disclosing that Tejan Kabbah, the president of Sierra Leone, had sent Tony Blair an unsolicited testimonial, insisting he had received no military backing from British Government sources in restoring democracy to his country.

He also joined the Whitehall campaign against Sandline, saying the company's "role in the removal of the illegal regime and the return of my government has been exaggerated. I assure you most emphatically that at no time did my government utilise mercenaries provided by Sandline. In fact, arrangements of third parties, of which I was aware, enabled Sandline to make a single delivery of light weapons for use by our Civil Defence Units only after the removal of the illegal regime and the liberation of Freetown..."

Later, replying to an emergency Commons question from Mr Howard, who said the entire affair was fast degenerating into a "shambles", with the Foreign Office "wholly out of ministerial control", Mr Cook said he was constrained by the Customs investigation.

But he gave notice that he would no longer stand by while wild allegations were laid against defenceless officials. "I will say to the House that in all the papers on this affair, I have found no evidence that officials in the Africa Department were involved in any kind of conspiracy with Sandline, or gave any prior approval to a breach of the arms embargo.

"The investigation which I have ordered will establish the truth. But, in the meantime, I have more faith in my officials than I have in Sandline."

Mr Cook said the first document he received about any breach of the arms embargo or a shipment of arms was on 28 April, when he saw the letter from Sandline's lawyers.

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