Ministers and mandarins in open war

On Her Majesty's Service: mercenary in arms-for-Africa row
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THE FOREIGN Office was plunged into open warfare yesterday amid claims of a deliberate cover-up by diplomats over the arms-to-Africa affair.

Allies of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook made no secret of their anger at briefings given by officials to ministers before theirparliamentary denials of the allegations.

The row over British involvement in arms embargo-busting in Sierra Leone broke as it emerged that a second Foreign Office minister, Baroness Symons, denied claims of government involvement when they were raised in the Lords in March.

The affair is now threatening to pit mandarins against ministers in a clash of culture and style. Mr Cook is said to be determined to use the findings of an independent inquiry into events at the Foreign Office to force through reforms. Pressure over the affair has forced the Foreign Secretary to pull out of a speaking engagement to address the Board of Deputies of British Jews at their annual conference in Bournemouth today, at which Mr Cook was expected to face tough questioning over his recent controversial visit to Israel.

One ally of Mr Cook said that the culture of the department had to be addressed after an episode highlighting the activities of "a group who think they know more than ministers and that ministers need to know only half the truth".

Lawyers acting for Sandline, the British company accused of breaching an arms embargo against Sierra Leone, published a letter on Friday detailing contacts between their client and British and US officials and military personnel. Reports last night suggested that a second British company is under investigation, although customs refused to comment.

Sandline is said to have aided forces loyal to President Kabbah of Sierra Leone, whose government was overthrown by a military coup. Despite international backing for President Kabbah, who was duly restored to power, a UN arms embargo was in place.

In March, Minister of State Tony Lloyd rubbished reports claiming links between the Government and Sandline over the arms contract. Two days earlier, Lady Symons had also attacked the report.

The Foreign Secretary said yesterday "there was no question of ministerial approval of Sandline's activities", adding: "I have nothing to hide and I'm determined there will be no hiding place for the facts."

But Michael Howard, shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "It is virtually inconceivable ministers did not have the information and if they did not we have to ask why."