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Britain wary about promise of democracy

Britain welcomed yesterday's announcement by Sani Abacha of clemency for the alleged coup plotters but there were doubts in the Foreign Office over the scale and speed of the Nigerian leader's promised transition to democracy.

The cautious British reaction indicated that those Commonwealth member- nations which favour a harder line towards the military junta are unlikely to find General Abacha's promises acceptable. There must still be a question- mark over his participation in the Commonwealth summit next month and some members at the meeting will press for sanctions against Nigeria.

"We welcome the exercise of clemency," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said yesterday, "but we remain concerned that long prison sentences have been imposed after secret trials." British officials were examining the timetable which Gen Abacha had laid out for a return to civilian rule in three years' time, but it was unclear if it would be enough to persuade the international community not to take further action.

"We regret the lack of commitment to an early handover to civilian democratic rule," the Foreign Office said, adding that an end to military government was necessary both for Nigeria to make progress and for good relations with Britain. It appeared that British officials, who have conducted a prolonged dialogue with the Nigerian regime, were disappointed by the few concessions made in Gen Abacha's announcement.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, is expecting to discuss Nigeria at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg today which could produce a common stance on Nigeria, although Britain will probably do its best to resist an early imposition of sanctions because of substantial British economic interests, especially in the oil sector.

Tony Lloyd, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, urged the government to take immediate action to increase pressure on the junta, calling Gen Abacha's statement "a package of false compromises and fake promises". Incremental oil sanctions should be imposed on Nigeria: these would cut its revenues and intensify dissatisfaction with the regime. Such drastic sanctions would also make it impossible for Gen Abacha to undertake the regeneration of the economy, which he has said is needed before democracy can be restored.