Mercenaries: We told the Foreign Office

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THE Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd was under increasing pressure last night as revelations pointed to an embarrassingly close relationship between officials and mercenaries who ousted the regime in the African state of Sierra Leone.

Mr Lloyd was forced to admit that there were "points to correct" in information he had given to a Commons select committee earlier this week, when he said he had only recently been told that an investigation into the matter had been launched. He admitted yesterday that the matter had been passed to him "for noting" but he had failed to do so.

Mr Lloyd's admission came as solicitors acting for Sandline International released a letter which claimed they had liaised very closely with senior British officials over their operation to help reinstate the ousted president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Sandline, which is headed by former army officer Lieutenant- Colonel Tim Spicer, is under investigation by Customs & Excise for alleged breaches of a United Nations arms embargo, but has insisted it was acting with government approval.

The company released a "strictly private" letter, sent to Robin Cook on 24 April, claiming the Foreign Secretary had breached its confidential nature when he referred to it in the Commons on Wednesday.

The Independent revealed earlier this week that Sandline had a series of meetings with Foreign Office officials just weeks before it arranged a shipment of arms to Sierra Leone to help President Kabbah, who was ousted last May in a coup led by Johnny Paul Koroma. It was also revealed that officers from HM Customs & Excise had launched an investigation into whether the shipment had broken UN and European Union embargoes, and into the possible role of British officials.

The letter claims that Sandline met with up to four named officials from the Foreign Office. It also claims that the company carried out similar briefings with US officials as well as with senior military officers in West Africa. Sandline said it had been recommended to President Kabbah by his friend Peter Penfold, the High Commissioner to Sierra Leone. Mr Penfold is due to be questioned by Customs officers.

While there is no evidence that ministers knew about Sandline's operation, or of their contact with officials, the affair is becoming increasingly embarrassing for the Government - suggesting, as it does, a failure of communication within the Foreign Office. Mr Lloyd told a Commons select committee on Tuesday that he did not know of a Customs investigation into the shipping of arms to Mr Kabbah's soldiers until last Friday. Mr Cook told the Commons the following day that Mr Lloyd had been given the information "for noting" two weeks earlier.

Although there is no suggestion that Mr Lloyd deliberately misled the committee, Tory MPs said last night that he had failed to apologise and would have to go. The most likely explanation was that his officials failed to draw the matter to his attention and that he did not properly read his briefs.

David Wilshire, one of the MPs whose question about the Sandline affair floored Mr Lloyd when he appeared before the committee, has formally asked for him to be recalled. He said yesterday's statement was "a pathetic little apology" and was not good enough. "Someone's going to have to be the fall guy and resign," he said.

In a letter to Donald Anderson, chairman of the committee, Mr Lloyd said he had nothing to add to what the Foreign Secretary had said. "When I returned to the office and checked all the papers I discovered that there were, indeed, points to correct. I discussed these with Robin Cook and particularly asked him to set the record straight," he said.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Blair had every confidence in Mr Lloyd. Senior aides at the Foreign Office also maintained that he would not be forced to resign.