The anatomy of a very secret coup

Documents reveal British involvement in overthrow of dictator. Fran Abrams and Andrew Buncombe report
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The Independent Online
"THE PRESENT situation," said the fax, "is that there are about 30,000 troops located at Lungi International Airport poised to attack Freetown at an unspecified date."

The letter, dated 8 July last year, is notable for its matter-of-fact style. It signs off: "I thank you very much in your willingness to assist in this our time of need."

The letter, one of several documents obtained by The Independent, reveals a plan to overthrow an African regime by using mercenaries that has led to a HM Customs and Excise investigation and growing embarrassment for the British government, which has been implicated in the plan.

The fax was sent by Momodu Koroma, a member of the exiled Sierra Leone government led by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, in Conakry, capital of the west African state of Guinea. Conakry was once described as "the Paris of Africa" but is now a city of 500,000 and little charm. Hot, dirty and dusty, with choking exhaust fumes and endless lines of jammed traffic, it is place where - as one writer put it - most people spend their time planning how to leave. Which is precisely what Mr Kabbah and his supporters were planning to do: they wanted to go home.

They already had the support of those 30,000 men from the Nigerian-backed Economic Community of West African States (Ecomog). But in addition, out in the bush of Sierra Leone and Guinea were the Kamajors, an ethnic army built up by Mr Kabbah while he was president.

The strength of the Kamajors - and the resentment this had created among anti-Kabbah factions - had been one of the factors that led to the coup led by Johnny Paul Koroma (no relation to the minister for presidential affairs) which ousted the president in May 1997. But to return to power, Mr Kabbah would need the support of the Kamajors, and for them to be trained and properly armed. That was why they turned to Lt-Col Tim Spicer, a former British soldier who had served in Bosnia and the Falklands..

The coup was to be funded by Rakesh Saxena, a former Thai banker who was on bail in Canada for an alleged $88m (pounds 55m) fraud in Thailand. Mr Saxena, had diamond mining interests in Sierra Leone, which were threatened by the instability there. A exchange of faxes with Momodu Koroma shows that he was prepared to put $1.5m behind the plan to restore Mr Kabbah to power.

Even though he was on bail in Canada, Mr Saxena knew immediately who to turn to in order to convert the idea into a military reality. A phone call to Lt-Col Spicer in London during the weekend of 12/13 July whetted the former Scots Guards officer's appetite. Things had not been going well for Spicer's "military consulting" business which needed a boost.

No sooner had the phone call ended than Lt-Col Spicer was faxing Mr Saxena with details of what he could offer. "We are certainly able to assist ... as you are aware we have unique expertise and knowledge of the country, already have a very good relationship with the government and with Ecomog, and have the resources to implement any project the government decides on in an effective, timely manner with minimum collateral damage to innocent parties," he wrote.

He planned to fly to Conakry on Wednesday 16 July; and for $60,000 plus $10,000 in expenses, he would produce a full report on what he could offer. Within two days, the money had been wired to him in London by Samir Patel, Mr Saxena's aide at the Sierra Leone and Guinea-based Jupiter Mining Corporation.

Lt-Col Spicer should prepare his report within a week and should then fly to Canada to see him, Mr Saxena said. He had recently invested in two properties in Sierra Leone and his offer of help was solely motivated by a desire to protect his business interests, he said.

Lt-Col Spicer did as he was asked. Once the deal was agreed, the next step was to find the arms the pro-Kabbah forces needed. The obvious source was Bulgaria, where small arms are cheap and the export controls are lax. It is not known precisely how the weapons were shipped to Guinea, but it is believed they were flown via Nigeria, which is the subject of an UN arms embargo.

The 30 tons of arms were flown to Africa on 21 February, possibly by IBIS Air, Sandline's air support company. It is rumoured that some time late last year a plane was impounded in Liberia, but that it was released after protests from the Nigerians. It is said that some of the men on board were recognised as known "military consultants", or in common parlance, mercenaries.

Lt-Col Spicer objects strongly to the term "mercenary". His company's publicity material describes its business as "conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction." It says the firm would never become involved with illegal arms trading, rebel factions or international organised crime. As well as providing military operations on land and by air, it also operates a former Royal Navy gunboat.

While the Sierra Leone troops were preparing for the counter-coup, the country's government in exile was not idle. Peter Penfold, the British High Commissioner, had become close to President Kabbah and had also met Lt-Col Spicer.

Obtaining support from other countries was not overly difficult. Johnny Koroma was a ruthless dictator who in his short time as leader was to be responsible for hundreds of deaths. Britain, Sierra Leone's former colonial power, indicated its support for Mr Kabbah, even inviting him to the Commonwealth leaders' summit in Edinburgh. And, during the early part of this year, as the plan progressed, Lt-Col Spicer discussed the issue with Foreign Office officials in London.

In February, the counter-coup was launched. The troops which had been waiting at Lungi airport, just 16 miles from Freetown across the mouth of the Rokel river, were now trained and armed. They restored Mr Kabbah to power, bringing thousands of people on to the streets to greet him as he returned in triumph to Freetown.

He wasted no time in giving thanks where it was due. On the day of his reinstatement, he gave a speech acknowledging Britain's role in helping him back to power. "The British prime minister and his government deserve our special thanks for their support and assistance in every respect," he said.

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