Foreign affairs: Cook to stand by officials in row over Sierra Leone

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK will stand by his senior officials today as they come under fierce criticism in an official report on the arms to Sierra Leone affair.

The Foreign Secretary will decide after seeing the report whether a personal statement in defence of his permanent secretary, Sir John Kerr, is necessary, officials said.

A British firm of mercenaries, Sandline International, shipped arms to the exiled government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in breach of a UN embargo but escaped prosecution. They claimed Foreign Office officials knew of their activities.

An aide to Mr Cook said he discussed the issue with Sir John yesterday at a regular meeting. On the basis of leaks about the report he felt it would be wrong for officials to be subjected to new criticism. "This inquiry does not appear to have uncovered new facts which would change the central findings of Legg. There was no connivance, no cover-up. That's why he feels it would be unfair to officials to put them through the wringer again."

Sir John will receive the most severe criticism in the report from the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Members were angered by his refusal to answer their questions while another inquiry, by Sir Thomas Legg, was continuing. The MPs also became embroiled in a dispute with the Foreign Office last summer over access to telegrams sent by British officials who fled Sierra Leone in May 1997 after a coup. The committee's inquiry was refused permission to interview the head of MI6, Sir David Spedding, and faced Foreign Office resistance over access to official dispatches. Sir David gave evidence instead to the intelligence committee, which meets in private.

The committee's report will be far more hard-hitting than the inquiry by Sir Thomas, which reported in July. Sir John will be held largely responsible for failings in his department, though some other officials, including Britain's High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, will be treated more gently. Although he lunched with Sandline representatives, the committee felt he was not given enough support after the coup.