Sandline boss backed by Gulf war general

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The Independent Online
THE HEAD of Britain's forces in the Gulf War gave a personal recommendation to a foreign politician supporting Tim Spicer, the man at the centre of the Sierra Leone affair, it emerged last night.

General Sir Peter de la Billiere, gave a "favourable reference" for Col Spicer, who was once a personal aide, according to Chris Haiveta, then Deputy Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

The country later engaged Spicer's company Sandline International to recapture a rebel-held mine but the operation ended in ignominy. Spicer was arrested and the government of the former British protectorate was forced to resign.

In 1991 Col Spicer spent six months as Military Assistant to Sir Peter, then the most senior British officer in the Gulf.

Five years later, after Col Spicer had left to set up the mercenary firm Sandline International, Mr Haiveta asked Sir Peter about Col Spicer, after his company had been recommended to his government. Asked if the general had provided a good reference, he replied: "Yes, he did and indeed Spicer was his MA or executive officer or someone like that."

Yesterday Sir Peter confirmed through an aide that he believed he had been asked about Col Spicer and had responded with some "general comments" about his character. He had no knowledge of Sandline. His agents, Curtis Brown, said the conversation did not amount to a reference.

The inquiry report into the affair reveals a number of parallels with recent events in Sierra Leone. Customs and Excise are investigating claims that Sandline broke a UN embargo against the African country with the knowledge of Foreign Office officials.

Papua New Guinea officials told last year's inquiry that they met Mr Spicer in London in April 1996, on the same day as they also met Foreign Office officials to talk about arms purchases.

They also said they believed they were recruiting serving British soldiers and not mercenaries.

After Col Spicer was arrested in March 1997 he used the British High Commissioner's residence to give a press conference.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was heading for a clash with the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

He is expected to rebuff a demand from the committee to hand over telegrams sent by diplomats in Sierra Leone to the Foreign Office.

The Labour-dominated committee agreed the move in a private session before the Foreign Secretary's Commons statement yesterday.

However Mr Cook told the House that such telegrams were "restricted in circulation" as they could contain material "embarrassing to Her Majesty's Government and others".