As government embarrassment grew over Foreign Office involvement in the plot, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday promised an independent inquiry into the claims that British officials covertly gave approval to the mercenaries.
The documents show the full extent of the planning for the coup in a series of exchanges between the exiled government of Sierra Leone, an arms dealer wanted for alleged money laundering and the former Army officer Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Spicer, head of Sandline International Ltd, who describe themselves as "military consultants". The negotiations, conducted by faxed letters and cellular phones, stretched from Canada to the West African state of Guinea.
The documents also show the costs involved in planning an operation to overthrow the regime. In one letter, Lt-Col Spicer explains that one week's consultancy will cost $60,000 (pounds 35,000). He says that additional expenses to make a presentation of the plan in Africa will cost $10,000.
"You asked for assistance with a military appreciation of the credible options," he says, "we are certainly able to assist."
The Foreign Secretary yesterday promised the investigation amid growing evidence that Foreign Office staff knew mercenaries were engaged to reinstate Sierra Leone's elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, in breach of a United Nations arms embargo.
Mr Cook was forced to the despatch box to respond to the allegations after the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, accepted an emergency question from the Opposition. He said no ministerial approval had ever been given for the activities of Sandline International Ltd.
"I can assure the House that we have not, and we will not, condone any breach of international law," he said.
It was "a matter of deep concern" that his fellow minister Tony Lloyd had been ill-informed by his officials, Mr Cook added. Mr Lloyd answered a Parliamentary debate on the issue in March, two days after a Customs and Excise investigation was launched into Sandline's activities, but knew nothing about the inquiry at the time.
Clearly laying the blame on officials, Mr Cook told the House: "I do believe that it is unsatisfactory that he was put up to the dispatch box in Parliament to speak to the House without being informed."
Inquiries by The Independent have established that plans to organise a counter-coup to reinstate President Kabbah, exiled in Guinea, began as early as July 1997 - two months after he was ousted by rebel forces headed by Johnny Paul Koroma. He was finally reinstated with the help of neighbouring governments and arms and training supplied by Sandline, in February 1998.
Customs and Excise are investigating the shipment of arms by Sandline and the possible involvement of the British authorities, in particular the High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold. The Independent revealed yesterday that Sandline had met FCO officials just weeks before it shipped 30 tons of arms to pro-Kabbah forces.
Mr Cook said an independent figure would be called in to investigate once the Customs and Excise inquiry and any subsequent prosecution were complete.
Some Africa-watchers expressed doubts about Mr Kabbah's human rights record. Dr Abdel Fatau Musah, a consultant to the British American Security Information Council, a non-governmental organisation concerned with arms dealing, said 2,000 opponents of Mr Kabbah had been jailed since his return and 60 faced death sentences.
"The restoration of the Kabbah regime has not in any way advanced the cause of democracy in Sierra Leone. Opponents of the regime are being rounded up and reports filtering out indicate instances of serious human rights violations" he said. "The credibility of the ethical UK foreign policy and the proposed EU code of conduct could be seriously undermined by the scandal."Reuse content