Revealed: FO links to mercenaries

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The Independent Online
SENIOR Foreign Office officials met mercenaries planning to help overthrow the Sierra Leone regime just five weeks before an embargo- busting shipment of arms was delivered to anti-government forces.

The Independent has learnt that officials from Sandline International Ltd - who describe themselves as "military consultants" - met officials led by Craig Murray, deputy head of the FO's Africa (equatorial) department. Sandline was represented at the meeting by Lt-Col Tim Spicer, a Falklands veteran and the former Army spokesman in Bosnia. Sandline has claimed that while it breached the UN arms embargo by shipping arms to Sierra Leone, the delivery had been sanctioned by the Government. The arms were used by forces trying to reinstate the former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. He was finally reinstated in March this year.

A criminal investigation has been launched by officers from the National Intelligence Service - the investigative arm of HM Customs and Excise - into the shipment and into the role played by British officials and Ministers. The FO has insisted that at no point was ministerial approval for Sandline's actions ever given.

The FO has admitted that Peter Penfold, the High Commissioner for Sierra Leone, did meet Sandline officials, but yesterday refused to comment on whether other officials met mercenaries. A spokesman said he was unable to comment on the advice of government lawyers. Mr Murray, who was appointed last year, also refused to comment. Sandline also refused to comment.

The Independent understands that officials met Lt-Col Spicer on up to three occasions, at least one of which took place at FO premises. There was also a meeting at Sandline's London headquarters in Chelsea. One of the meetings is understood to have taken place on 19 January. Up to 30 tons of arms - provided by Sandline - were flown to Sierra Leone from Bulgaria on 21 February. Training was also supplied by Sandline to assist up to 40,000 pro-Kabbah militia and the Nigerian army who also supported the former President.

Yesterday the row over the possible involvement of the Government deepened when Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary demanded that the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, make a statement on the matter. "There are many questions that need to be answered," he said. "When did Mr Cook first know of these allegations? When did Mr Cook's officials first know of these allegations. What action did he take?"

However, Tony Lloyd, a Foreign Office minister, yesterday said Mr Cook and his team were kept in the dark over Sandline's involvement. He told a Commons select committee that although a Customs investigation was launched in February, ministers did not know about it until last weekend.

He told the committee that in March he had asked his officials about newspaper claims that Sandline helped to reinstate President Kabbah, but had still not been told about the Customs inquiry.

Last March he told the Commons that Britain did not support the way the "counter coup" had been organised. Yesterday David Willshire, the Conservative MP for Spellthorne, told him at the committee hearing: "I started out feeling angry. I now feel sorry for you. I think you have been hung out to dry by officials. Time may show us that you have been hung out to dry by the Foreign Secretary."

President Kabbah was ousted in May 1997 in a bloody coup by Johnny Paul Koroma. He spent his exile in Conakry, the capital of neighbouring Guinea where the British diplomatic mission led by Mr Penfold had also transferred. Mr Penfold is to be questioned by Customs officers this week about his involvement and the possibility that he asked Sandline to come in. On 12 March Mr Lloyd reported to parliament a speech by President Kabbah on the day he was returned to power in which he said: "The British Prime Minister and his government also deserve our special thanks for their support and assistance in every respect."

Last night Lord Avebury, the Liberal Democrat peer who brought Sandline's involvement to the attention of the Foreign Office, said Robin Cook should now ask President Kabbah to impound the weapons so their origin could be traced through their serial numbers.