MPs question RAF role in Sierra Leone

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Senior MPs demanded a statement from Robin Cook last night on why a senior RAF officer was sent to co-ordinate the operations of mercenaries in Sierra Leone.

Senior MPs demanded a statement from Robin Cook last night on why a senior RAF officer was sent to co-ordinate the operations of mercenaries in Sierra Leone.

As further details emerged of the revelation in yesterday's Independent that the hired soldiers had killed civilians while working closely with British forces, the Foreign Office admitted a UK liaison officer was still working with them.

"There is certainly an RAF officer still there and that would be one of his tasks. It is important to make sure they know what we are doing," a spokesman said.

The Ministry of Defence said the officer was advising on the development of the Sierra Leone Air Wing, which currently consisted solely of two helicopter gunships operated by mercenaries.

The Labour chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Donald Anderson, wrote to the Foreign Secretary to demand an explanation. "This is sufficiently important for me to put a series of questions to Robin Cook," he said. "I would like to know whatare the guidelines and ground rules in terms of liaison with mercenaries."

A Conservative member of his committee, the Spelthorne MP David Wilshire, also wrote to Mr Cook and to the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon. Ministers' claims that British forces would not co-operate with mercenaries were hollow, he said.

"The reality of the British Government's involvement with mercenaries has yet again shown what hypocrisy and humbug comes out of the mouth of the Foreign Secretary when he tries to play 'holier than thou'," he said.

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, who is also a member of the Foreign Affairs committee, said Mr Cook should issue a full statement.

"In the light of The Independent's article, he can no longer use the Parliamentary recess to avoid giving a full explanation," he said.

The MPs spoke out as new details emerged of the operations of Neall Ellis and his team, who were fighting rebels in Sierra Leone and who said they were funded by "the international community" - usually a euphemism for diamond mining interests.

A report from Human Rights Watch, a US-based campaigning group, described how between seven and nine people including a pregnant woman were killed when the mercenaries, who used to work for the British firm Sandline International, fired into the centre of a town. The helicopter had dropped leaflets warning of a future air attack but fired just minutes later as some civilians were rushing to pick them up.

A 40-year-old woman named Zainab described the attack. "The bodies were torn apart. I could see that one of the women was pregnant. These bombs never hit soldiers because they know by now to hide from it. It only kills civilians," she said.

The United Nations has condemned the operations of mercenaries and has demanded they be removed from the West African state. But Britain has not signed up to a new UN convention on mercenaries.

Alan McLaughlin, of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: "These mercenaries are effectively being used as a foreign policy tool."