Politics: Navy helped during Sierra Leone coup

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The Independent Online
ROYAL NAVY ships went to the aid of war-torn Sierra Leone within days of the start of a counter-coup backed by British mercenaries, it was revealed last night.

As demands grew for Robin Cook to come to the House of Commons to explain apparent discrepancies in his statements on the affair, there was increasing speculation about the level of British military involvement.

HMS Monmouth was in Guinea, where the exiled President Kabbah was based, by 14 February - just a few days after soldiers backed by the British firm Sandline International began their assault on Freetown. Monmouth and HMS Cornwall, which arrived later, were in the area to provide humanitarian assistance, according to a Parliamentary answer from George Robertson, the Defence Secretary . There were suggestions last night a third ship, HMS Nottingham, also went to the area.

Last night John Morris, the Attorney General, revealed in a written answer he had learned about a Customs and Excise investigation into Sandline's breach of a UN arms embargo in early April, weeks before other ministers. Tony Lloyd, the Foreign Office minister, was sent information about the investigation in mid-April while Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, did not know until he received a letter from Sandline's solicitors on 28 April.

Officials including Sir John Kerr, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, knew about allegations that staff colluded with Sandline in early April. Sir John told MPs last week he did not inform Mr Cook because it was a "housekeeping matter".

Yesterday Conservatives maintained pressure on the Government after the belated revelation that five intelligence reports in February warned of Sandline's breach of the arms embargo. Mr Cook told the Commons last week that no such reports existed, but later had to retract.

Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, wrote to Mr Cook again to demand he apologise in person to MPs: "This latest revelation is extraordinary. Did you not check whether intelligence reports had been received? ... If so, how could the receipt of those telegrams have ... been missed?"

There were also claims last night that Sir Thomas Legg, appointed to conduct an independent inquiry into the affair, was unreliable because he once had to apologise for misleading a Commons committee.

At Prime Minister's Questions Tony Blair denied Mr Cook had misled the House. The Conservatives had shown little or no interest in Sierra Leone until recent weeks and their front bench had not even bothered to attend a Commons debate on 12 March, he said.

"From last May not a single question was tabled by the shadow Foreign Secretary or his deputy. On 12 March, this great debate where they say we should have explained everything, not a single Tory front-bencher even turned up."

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