British officer advised gunship killers

A senior RAF officer has been advising mercenaries in Sierra Leone, who are accused of killing civilians in helicopter gunship raids on rebel strongholds.

A senior RAF officer has been advising mercenaries in Sierra Leone, who are accused of killing civilians in helicopter gunship raids on rebel strongholds.

The Ministry of Defence admitted yesterday that the officer was liaising with a small group of mercenaries hired by the Sierra Leone government to repel rebel attacks on the capital, Freetown.

Freelance soldiers have been accused by human rights campaigners of indiscriminate attacks that have killed many civilians. The group was filmed apparently firing randomly with rockets and machine-guns at a village where rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were believed to be holed up.

The disclosure will embarrass Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, and Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, as they await news of six British soldiers being held hostage in Sierra Leone. Last night 150 soldiers from The Parachute Regiment were on stand-by in Senegal, ready to rescue the men if necessary.

It will also rekindle a dispute over British links with some of the same mercenaries two years ago. Mr Cook, now at the United Nations summit in New York, said then that British forces would never co-operate with mercenaries and that their presence in Sierra Leone was "a menace". He said last year: "We are not aware of any British mercenary involvement in the current conflict but we shall obviously try to ensure any such activity is within the bounds set by United Nations resolutions, which we shall seek to enforce if any mercenary activity is brought to our attention."

The activity has breached a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for "the utmost vigilance against the menace posed by the activities of mercenaries" and a demand by a special UN committee for the withdrawal of all private military operators from the West African state.

The British squadron leader, who has not been named, was spotted by a film crew from the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) at a barracks in the Sierra Leonean capital. The Ministry of Defence confirmed his presence in the operations room of a former South African soldier, Neall Ellis. Mr Ellis's team, which works for the Freetown government, flies two helicopter gunships reportedly paid for by internationaldiamond-mining interests.

Mr Ellis previously flew a helicopter for Sandline International, the mercenary company that broke a UN embargo when it shipped weapons to Sierra Leone in 1998. Before that he worked for Executive Outcomes, another mercenary company. Both were founded by Tony Buckingham, a millionaire with mineral interests.

Mr Ellis told the ABC journalists that the RAF officer "is here as an adviser, but he is basically running the place".

Yesterday a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said the officer was present earlier in the summer to co-ordinate the RAF's own airborne operations with Mr Ellis's work rather than directing his raids. Asked if the officer was in charge of the operations room, she said: "That is possibly very true. He would be there as an adviser but presumably he would be in more authority than Neall Ellis. We are working with the Sierra Leone government. If they use private military companies that is up to them."

The officer was in Sierra Leone with Operation Palliser, a mission to secure Lunghi airport in Freetown and to train the country's army.

The ABC filmed Mr Ellis and his crew shooting at a village that had been overrun by the RUF. The pilot was recorded discussing a group of men who could be seen below: "I'm not sure if they are civilians or not - there are not supposed to be any civilians here - it's all supposed to be a rebel area," he said before his men opened fire.

Corrine Dufka of the US-based Human Rights Watch told the ABC that the mercenaries were killing civilians.