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British meeting with Nigerians provokes anger

The British government is coming under pressure to take a tougher stand against the Nigerian military regime after a quiet and apparently cordial series of meetings between Nigerian emissaries and British officials this week.

Britain is trying to stave off demands for sanctions against Nigeria at next month's Commonwealth summit, fearing British commercial interests could be damaged. But other Commonwealth governments are likely to heed the advice of a recent fact-finding mission, which concluded that only sanctions could help to restore democracy in West Africa's largest country.

The mission recommended a study of a possible oil embargo and measures to freeze the personal bank accounts and assets of members of the regime. It warned that Nigeria could dissolve into civil strife if the army held on to power.

There has been fresh opposition criticism of British policy after visits to London by the Nigerian Finance Minister, Anthony Ani, and Chief Ernest Shonakan, a personal representative of the Nigerian military leader, General Sami Abacha. The two men, who were on their way home from talks in Washington with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on Nigeria's debt, spoke at meetings organised by the Nigerian-British Chamber of Commerce, intended to boost investment in the country.

A cocktail party organised by the Chamber of Commerce was held at the Foreign Office on Tuesday, although a Foreign Office spokesman said only one junior official attended. The Foreign Office maintains it aims to persuade General Abacha to release political prisoners and restore democracy. "At the moment the idea is to put the maximum pressure on Abacha to accelerate the reform process," a British official said.

Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Tony Lloyd, yesterday called on the Government to examine the feasibility of sanctions and criticised the conduct of quiet diplomacy towards the regime. In a Commons motion he said there should be a phased, effective approach to sanctions, linked to a timetable for a return to civilian rule. "The British government should for once lead the world and call for a comprehensive package of measures ... that will really hurt this brutal regime," he said.

General Abacha has reacted to criticism from abroad by announcing a three-year timetable for the restoration of civilian rule, and by exercising clemency towards 40 people accused of plotting a coup.