UK firms 'trying to send arms to Azeris'

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The Independent Online
A FOREIGN Office investigation has found that British businessmen have been trying illegally to supply Azerbaijan with mercenaries and weapons, in breach of embargoes.

The investigation was launched following the Independent's disclosure last month that a British peer, Lord Erskine of Rerrick, had been a consultant to a consortium of British and Turkish businessmen which was planning to supply both men and weapons to the central Asian republic.

The contract, which Turkish sources have said is worth as much as pounds 150m per annum, is currently being negotiated. It is not clear how much has been agreed or whether any soldiers - some of whom are understood to be British - have arrived in Azerbaijan, which is fighting a war with Armenia over possession of the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh. There is a British embargo on arms exports, and it is illegal for Britons to offer themselves as mercenaries to foreign powers.

Lord Erskine told the Independent from his home in Turkish northern Cyprus that he had reported on the negotiations to a contact within the Foreign Office. This has been confirmed by officials. In a parliamentary question tabled by Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, the Foreign Office was asked to disclose details of its investigations into the report.

Douglas Hogg, Foreign Office minister, said in reply: 'We take seriously the allegation that British citizens and companies are attempting to procure arms and mercenaries for Azerbaijan, and investigations continue.

'Investigations to date suggest that there may be truth in the allegation that these attempts have been made, but as yet no evidence that they have succeeded.'

It is understood that soldiers are to be flown in to assist the Azeri military on board Russian transport aircraft. Lord Erskine confirmed that a British businessman had travelled three times to the Azeri capital, Baku, over the last four months. He said that he had not yet been paid for his own participation, which he said involved introducing the main negotiators to Turkish officials.