'Mercenaries as peace-keepers' plan under fire

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Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, came under fire from the Ministry of Defence, former ministers and Labour MPs yesterday over his suggestion that mercenaries could be used for UN peace-keeping operations.

He used a Foreign Office Green Paper on Tuesday to float the idea of allowing private military companies to be hired by the United Nations because they were cheaper and more effective than national armies.

Senior sources at the MoD said the controversial proposal would undermine the Government's attempts to retain armed forces personnel.

The row looks set to widen when Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, unveils plans today to update the UK's defences in the light of the 11 September atrocities. He will propose switching hundreds of heavy infantry troops to light infantry roles so they can respond rapidly to terrorist threats.

The highly mobile, rapidly deployable units could be sent into countries suspected of harbouring and exporting terrorists.

Mr Hoon's plan is at odds with Mr Straw's vision of boosting the role of mercenary units. MoD sources said mercenaries could be higher paid than regular troops, making it more difficult to persuade soldiers to stay in the Army.

Several Labour backbenchers, including two former ministers, criticised Mr Straw's suggestion yesterday as "the thin edge of a dangerous wedge". Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, and Tony Lloyd, the former foreign minister who was forced out of government by the "arms-to-Africa" affair, both signed a Commons motion calling on the Foreign Secretary to reject the notion.

The motion "recognises that the main motivation of military mercenaries is money" and states that "concerns for human rights, sovereignty and accountability" are more important than lower costs.

Tony Blair ducked the issue yesterday when Llew Smith, Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, raised the issue at Prime Minister's Questions.

Mr Blair avoided talking about a UN role and said Mr Straw was right to look at the possibility of regulating private military companies. Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said it was "breathtaking in the extreme" Mr Straw "should even contemplate giving such companies a veneer of respectability".

Mr Straw's Green Paper was prompted by the 1998 Sandline affair which led to claims that the Government had connived with the British private military company in the illegal export of arms to Sierra Leone.

A discussion paper today from Mr Hoon on the future of the armed forces ushers in a greater emphasis on mobile units of élite troops. It says: "We need to assure ourselves we have the right shape and balance of rapidly deployable forces and the ability to integrate with the intelligence and command and control needed to mount precision operations."

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