Senior MI6 officers face African arms questions

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The Independent Online
SENIOR INTELLIGENCE officials are to be questioned by MPs about their role in the "Arms to Africa" affair. It is believed the meetings, to take place in camera, will be addressed by the head of MI6 and the chief of defence intelligence.

The decision followed the disclosure in yesterday's Independent that MI6 officers encouraged a firm of British mercenaries, Sandline International, to breach a UN arms embargo on Sierra Leone.

Further questions on the issue were raised last night by Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary. Mr Howard has written to the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, asking for assurances that no such encouragement was given.

Sandline imported 30 tonnes of weapons to Sierra Leone as part of a successful operation to reinstate its president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, after a coup last year.

Mr Cook found himself at the centre of a political storm over the issue after Customs and Excise launched an investigation into Sandline's role only to be told by the company that it had Foreign Office approval. No charges were brought, and a former senior civil servant, Sir Thomas Legg, was asked to prepare a report on the events. He dismissed the activities of the intelligence services in less than one page out of a 160-page report, saying there was little in their telegrams that added to what was already known.

However, The Independent understands from two senior sources that MI6 officers in Africa were consulted by Sandline before it went ahead and gave the go-ahead for the operation. Now the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Com- mittee is to hold its own inquiry, taking three days of evidence next month.

Most of the sessions will take place in public, but a meeting with senior intelligence officials will be held in private. The others to be questioned will include Sir Peter Penfold, the High Commissioner to Sierra Leone who was closely involved with the operation to restore President Kabbah and who met Sandline operatives on several occasions.

Sandline will also send representatives to address the committee, and these are likely to include Tim Spicer, the company's chief executive. Sir John Kerr, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, is likely to attend and a Foreign Office minister, possibly Mr Cook, will also be called.

Other officials from the Foreign Office who were named in the Legg report will also answer MPs' questions. However, it is not thought that the most junior will be called.

In his letter to Mr Cook, Mr Howard said Sir Thomas' report concluded that officials and ministers deliberately played down the extent of the UN arms embargo because they know some people in West Africa were contemplating the use of force.

A Foreign Office spokesman said it would respond to the letter in due course.