Short tells MI6 spies to give coup alerts

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The Independent Online

The Secret Intelligence Service has been called in by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, to lead radical plans by Britain for preventing coups and civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Secret Intelligence Service has been called in by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, to lead radical plans by Britain for preventing coups and civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Independent on Sunday has learned Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, has recently convinced Ms Short that the service's agents in the field could give advance warning of coup attempts against African heads of state.

Ms Short is believed to have been reluctant to allow her department to be used to give MI6 a new role after the end of the Cold War but she now believes MI6 contacts in Africa could help to implement the Government's new conflict prevention and resolution strategy for the region.

A Ministry of Defence source denied this would mean propping up corrupt governments. "It is a radical, ground-breaking decision. Sierra Leone and East Timor are good examples of how we have managed to reduce conflict and to perform exit strategies for our troops with a great deal of success," he said.

Ms Short will chair a new ministerial committee to deal with conflicts in Africa and beyond. It will have a new £110m-a-year conflict prevention fund, which was announced by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, as part of his £43bn comprehensive spending review.

The Secretary of State for International Development will become the lead minister for peace-keeping operations in Africa by British armed forces, and Ms Short has the money to ensure rapid reaction in times of crisis, although she has made clear that there will have to be a consensus for action.

Mr Brown announced that, for the first time, the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, and the Department for International Development will pool budgets for peace-keeping and military intervention like the operation in Sierra Leone.

A total of £50m a year will be allocated to conflict prevention in sub-Saharan Africa and £60m for operations in the rest of the world.

The new committee could also speed up the British response to natural disasters in Africa. During the Mozambique floods, Ms Short made clear her anger at MoD charges for shipping British helicopters to the area.

Ms Short has jealously protected her budget but she had to contribute around £20m. "Conflict is one of the key obstacles to development in Africa. It hits the poor hardest and diverts scarce resources away from the fight against poverty. This cross-department initiative will help us work more effectively," she said. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said the initiative showed that the three departments were working more closely together than ever before. "They will permit swifter, better co-ordinated and more effective action to help prevent conflicts breaking out, and to manage them if they do break out," he said.

Sources said intervention could only take place at the invitation of democratically-elected governments. Many questions remain over precisely what this would mean in practice, as few countries mirror the case of Sierra Leone. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, for example, has just held a referendum in which voters are supposed to have rejected multi-party democracy. But Mr Museveni is regarded as a friend of the West, and could be a candidate for aid if threatened by rebellion.

Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party has just scraped home in a parliamentary election blighted by government-sponsored violence and intimidation, would not be regarded as a suitable case for intervention.

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