Up to 150 tonnes of AK-47 rifles, 60mm mortars and ammunition are now believed to have been flown into the region to help reinstate the Sierra Leone president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Customs and Excise is expected to look into the roles of two air brokers and two airlines which are believed to have flown weapons to President Kabbah.
As Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, cancelled engagements and closeted himself in the Foreign Office with senior advisers, the air of political crisis deepened. Mr Cook appeared on television to repeat his assertion that there had been no ministerial involvement in the affair, while the firm of mercenaries involved issued a statement claiming it had not breached a UN arms embargo.
Previous information suggested that just one shipment, of 30 tonnes of arms, was flown to Sierra Leone on 12 March, after the military junta which overthrew the elected government in May 1997 had been ousted. It has now emerged that four earlier consignments were sent to President Kabbah, who was exiled in Guinea, during January and February. It is believed that the first consignments of arms were flown from Berghaus in Bulgaria to Conakry in Guinea, possibly stopping for refuelling in Algiers. Last night Customs and Excise sources said they were unsure whether supplying arms to the government-in-exile in Guinea broke the UN embargo covering Sierra Leone.
Sky Air Cargo Services UK, which is based in London and has a single Liberian-registered Boeing 707 cargo plane, has admitted having been interviewed by Customs officers. But its part-owner Syed Naqvi said he was unaware of the cargo and that he had documentation to show the flight was legal. He is believed to have received the work through a British broker based outside London. Another British operator and a second British broker are also believed to have been involved, and are expected to be interviewed by Customs.
Yesterday Mr Cook continued to maintain that there was no ministerial involvement in the affair despite claims by the mercenary company Sandline that it had meetings with a number of Foreign Office officials and with the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold. Mr Cook also denied newspaper reports yesterday that ministers in the Ministry of Defence knew about Sandline's involvement. He said: "There was no policy to support any mercenary involvement to overturn the junta in Sierra Leone. We stood full-square by the UN resolution ... which imposed an arms embargo on Sierra Leone. That is the Government's policy and I would expect that government policy to be followed through by everyone." Mr Cook said any minister found to have knowingly misled the House of Commons or adopted the wrong policy would resign.
It also emerged that Mr Cook had cut off contact with the Foreign Office officials under investigation after allegations that they met Sandline. Instead, he was receiving advice from his political team and from the Permanent Secretary, Sir John Kerr. An aide to Mr Cook said this was standard practice because of the risk that the investigation might be prejudiced.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "While of course any deliberate breach of United Nations sanctions would be wrong, we can be absolutely robust in reminding people that President Kabbah was toppled and had United Nations and Commonwealth opinion united in support of him. Indeed the Prime Minister specifically invited Kabbah to the Commonwealth Heads of government meeting in Edinburgh as a way of signalling that. "
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