The inquiry into the possible involvement of senior officials in supporting mercenaries, could begin in days now that the separate Customs & Excise investigation is believed to have come down against prosecuting "military consultants" Sandline International Ltd.
It is believed that one of the reasons a prosecution is unlikely to take place is that Sandline would argue the "Matrix-Churchill" defence, claiming they believed they were acting with official approval.
The Conservatives will today in the Commons try to put Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, on the spot by calling for an independent inquiry headed by a judge.
But The Independent has learned that that has been ruled out by ministers. One insider said: "He is not a judge or a barrister but he has a legal background, and knows the working of government." However, the move could open the way for accusations of a whitewash, if the inquiry fails to be seen as rigorous in its work.
Michael Howard, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who will lead the Tory attack today, said on GMTV: "We need an independent inquiry outside Parliament - someone like a judge who has full powers to hear all the evidence from all the witnesses, to go through it meticulously and then reach a view and publish a report.
"We want all the evidence in public so we can all see exactly what went on."
The Customs inquiry is understood to have concluded that while there is evidence that the shipment of arms to Sierra Leone, in support of the elected president Tejan Ahmed Kabbah, may have been in breach of UN sanctions, they have decided there is little prospect of a conviction.
Sky Air Cargo Services, the airline which actually flew the weapons, is also unlikely to face prosecution.
A decision on whether to prosecute has still to be made by the Attorney General, John Morris. His decision, to be announced by Customs, could be made public today.
An announcement that no criminal prosecution is to be carried out would clear the way for the Foreign Office inquiry to be set up by the Foreign Secretary. "It would allow us to get cracking," said a source.
Lt Col Tim Spicer, the former British Army officer who heads Sandline International, was yesterday understood to be spending the day on a beach on the south coast with his children.
Sandline has always insisted it acted lawfully in supplying arms and training to reinstate President Kabbah, who was deposed in a coup in May 1997, even though the shipment appeared to breach a UN resolution banning arms sales to the country. It said it had regular briefings with senior officials in the FCO.
The Foreign Secretary has denied giving a "nod and wink" to Sandline and is said by friends to be "relishing the prospect" of a debate against the Tories to put his side of the case.
Tony Blair yesterday continued to defend Mr Cook saying he led the restoration "from a brutal military coup d'etat of a democratically elected regime... The person in charge of doing that was the Foreign Secretary and he did it excellently."Reuse content