Ministers accused of wrecking case against Sandline

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SENIOR ministers were last night accused of wrecking any chance of prosecuting the mercenaries at the centre of the "arms to Africa" affair.

Tony Blair and the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, were blamed for making a prosecution virtually impossible with their comments supporting the operation to reinstate the ousted president of Sierra Leone.

Customs and Excise yesterday announced officially that proceedings against Sandline International Ltd would not go ahead even though it almost certainly did breach sanctions by supplying arms to help President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

Customs said a six-week investigation concluded there would be no prosecution because "the particular circumstances leading up to the supply affect the fairness of the case to the extent that any prosecution could well fail and would certainly not be in the public interest".

This was taken to refer to the close liaison - including a series of meetings - between Sandline and senior Foreign Office officials in advance of the shipment of 30 tonnes of weapons and ammunition last February.

Privately, however, sources within Customs went further. They suggested ministers were even more responsible for the decision, supported by the Attorney General John Morris, than were their officials.

"Our legal people said they believed any prosecution would fail once a defence barrister referred to the Prime Minister describing the matter as a `hoo hah'," said one source.

"How could we convince the 12 people in a jury when the Prime Minister said the High Commissioner, Peter Penfold, had `done a superb job'. We would not have stood a chance."

The source said Mr Cook's comments supporting the officials who met Sandline prior to the shipment had added to the difficulties. Mr Penfold, who closely supported Mr Kabbah, and FCO officials named by Sandline as their contacts will also not face prosecution.

The criticism of ministers last night added to feelings that the decision not to prosecute was not based simply on whether a breach of the UN embargo banning the shipment of arms to Sierra Leone had occurred.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard last night accused Mr Cook of a "whitewash". "The Foreign Office has become the laughing stock of the world," he said. "There is no doubt there should be a full, urgent and independent inquiry. It must ensure that the decision-making in the Foreign Office never again plumbs such depths."

Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said not proceeding with a prosecution was inevitable "as soon as the description `hoo-hah' was applied to the legitimate interest of opposition MPs and the press".

During a debate in the Commons yesterday Mr Cook confirmed that Sir Thomas Legg, a former permanent secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, is to head a separate inquiry into the possible involvement of FCO officials.

Mr Cook yesterday appeared also to prejudge that inquiry, insisting that Sandline had only had one meeting with officials when they suggested that "someone else was thinking of shipping arms to Sierra Leone". The officials told them at a meeting on 19 January that such action would not be legal, he said.

Sandline, headed by former Army officer Lt Col Tim Spicer, has always insisted it acted lawfully and with the approval of the Government when supporting the reinstatement of President Kabbah, who was ousted in May 1997. It welcomed yesterday's decision.