General 'slipped through' into UK

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Diplomatic Editor

The Foreign Office has started an inquiry into how a Nigerian general was granted a visa to come to Britain in violation of an official ban on visits by members of Nigeria's armed forces and military regime.

Ahmed Abdullahi, an associate of the military ruler, Sani Abacha, came to London in a delegation which included the Foreign Minister and a representative of Gen Abacha, Chief Ernest Shonekan.

"We are checking out exactly how this occurred," a Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday. Gen Abdullahi, apparently, was granted a visa by the High Commission in Lagos. It was not known whether he disclosed his military rank on the application form. Officials said he "just slipped through" procedures intended to stop Nigerian officers visiting Britain. The ban is meant to be a visible symbol of disapproval of the military junta which seized power in 1993.

But Nigerian opposition members say the composition of the delegation was common knowledge before it left.

Tony Lloyd, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said the Foreign Office had been negligent, or in collusion with the Nigerians.

"It's hard to believe they missed what everybody else seems to have known. Either it speaks volumes about the casual way we do these things or else there's a cover-up going on."

Chief Shonekan met John Major at 10 Downing Street last week after Gen Abacha telephoned the Prime Minister to ask that he should be received.

British officials said Mr Major used the meeting to make a renewed plea for clemency in the cases of 40 alleged coup plotters facing death sentences or long prison terms. He also urged the Nigerians to adopt a timetable for a rapid transition to civilian rule.

The delegation came to Britain to put the government's case before the Commonwealth Summit in November, at which some member states will urge the imposition of sanctions and an oil embargo on Nigeria.