Rebuke for Cook over Sierra Leone

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ROBIN COOK'S most senior official will face severe criticism next week from an official inquiry into the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair, The Independent has learnt.

The Foreign Secretary will be rebuked for failings in his department, but will be cleared of knowing a British firm was shipping arms in breach of a UN embargo.

A report from the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, to be published next Tuesday, will be more hard-hitting than Sir Thomas Legg's investigation, ordered by Mr Cook, which reported last July.

Sir John Kerr, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service, will take the brunt of the report's most damaging findings. His officials held meetings with representatives from Sandline, the British firm of mercenaries that shipped arms to Sierra Leone.

The company, Sir John and Mr Cook will all be criticised for withholding information and witnesses from the select committee. Its inquiry was refused permission to interview Sir David Spedding, the head of MI6, and met fierce resistance from the Foreign Office over access to official dispatches. Sir David gave evidence instead to the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee in private.

However, one committee source said Sir John was unlikely to face dismissal as a result of the report. "There are criticisms all the way along the line. That's the difference between our report and the Legg report. We saw faults at almost every level. I doubt if Robin Cook will exactly enjoy the report," the source said.