Britain is set to supply arms and ammunition to progovernment forces in the Sierra Leonean civil war despite opposition to its deepening involvement in the conflict.
Although the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, assured the Commons that British forces would not be drawn into the escalating conflict, senior British military sources in the West African state admitted for the first time yesterday that the option of supplying arms was being seriously considered.
The British forces' official spokesman in Freetown, Lt- Commander Tony Cramp, said options for helping the Sierra Leone army and the Civil Defence Force militia "including supplies, are being looked at".
Arming the militias - which often include child soldiers, fighting under the influence of drugs - would add to the growing criticism faced by the Government over its handling of the affair. Opposition MPs accused the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, yesterday of having helped to unleash the current cycle of violence in Sierra Leone by forcing the country's President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, to free the rebel leader Foday Sankoh and give him a ministerial post as part of the settlement designed to end the country's eight-year civil war.
Mr Sankoh's group, the Revolutionary United Front, has been blamed for mass killings and atrocities, as well as taking hostage hundreds of United Nations peace-keepers.
Britain's Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, who visited troops in Freetown, confirmed that the Sierra Leone military high command had warned that its troops would eventually run out of ammunition. But he said no formal request for ammunition had been made and he did not believe there was any immediate risk. He also played down suggestions that the four RAF transport helicopters deployed in the country could resupply the Sierra Leone army.
"Anything would be conjecture. At the moment it is not ruled in and we have no plans to do it," he told reporters.
However, officials acknowledged privately that there was no reason why Britain should not supply ammunition and weaponry to the Sierra Leone army. They pointed out that it would not breach the United Nations arms embargo - which only applied to the rebels - and that Britain had already sent military equipment to the government of President Kabbah.
The Conservatives have signalled their intention to pursue the Government over its role in Sierra Leone and MPs are due to hold a private meeting tonight with Lt-Col Tim Spicer, the head of the British mercenary company Sandline, which helped to restore President Kabbah to power. Col Spicer claims the British Government gave Mr Sankoh access to power and diamonds as part of the Lome peace deal that it brokered.
In the Commons, the shadow Defence Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, demanded the Government stop "sliding and messing about" and show candour over its role. "They seem to think they have the God-given right to do what they like with our forces and that is not the case," he said.
Mr Hoon told MPs: "Our armed forces are doing an excellent job ... but there is no question of the UK taking over the UN mission or of being drawn into the civil war." He refused to set a firm date for withdrawal, and acknowledged that some of the forces would remain to provide "technical and logistic" support even after the UN peace-keeping force reaches its full complement of 11,000.