Inquiry finds Sandline did breach arms embargo

MILITARY consultants Sandline International did breach a United Nations embargo on "arms for Africa", a government investigation has concluded.

Customs and Excise officers have completed their inquiry into the supply of illicit weaponry to Sierra Leone and a report has gone to the Attorney- General, John Morris, for a decision on possible legal action.

The report is understood to conclude that Sandline was acting in breach of a UN resolution banning the sale of weapons to the war-torn former British colony in west Africa.

Though Customs investigators believe that Sandline did breach the embargo, it is unlikely that a prosecution will follow. The Attorney-General, acting in place of the Crown Prosecution Service, must decide whether a court case is in the public interest and would have a reasonable chance of success. Customs doubt whether there is sufficient evidence to secure convictions.

Tony Blair this morning defends Britain's role in Sierra Leone as an example of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy". In an interview on GMTV, he insists: "In Sierra Leone we helped restore a democratically elected regime, which is a good thing, not a bad thing."

It was revealed two weeks ago that Sandline supplied arms and training to help restore ousted president Ahmed Kabbah after he was deposed in May 1997.

The company has vigorously defended its actions, arguing that its role in toppling the brutal army dictator Major Johnny Paul Koroma and restoring democratically-elected President Kabbah was not unlawful.

Sandline maintains that senior Foreign Office officials tacitly endorsed their plan to arm supporters of President Kabbah with a 30-tonne shipment of guns and ammunition to the capital, Freetown.

Foreign Office ministers will have to defend their conduct and competence over "arms for Africa" in a Commons debate on the issue tomorrow, forced by the Conservatives who insist that the Government has failed to come clean on its role in the counter-coup which restored President Kabbah in March.

Thousands of people marched through Freetown yesterday to demonstrate their support for Peter Penfold, the British High Commissioner, who supported President Kabbah during his year-long exile in Conakry, Guinea. He is currently in Britain helping the Customs and Excise investigation.

Demonstrators carried placards saying: "We want Peter Penfold back. He is a hero in Sierra Leone." Shops and markets closed for the demonstration, which was organised by trade unions and civic groups.

Foreign minister Tony Lloyd tomorrow faces fresh charges that he has failed to come clean about the operations of Sandline International. The Conservatives have accused the minister of not telling the whole truth to MPs about Foreign Office contacts with the military firm headed by former British army officer Lieut-Col Tim Spicer.

Shadow foreign minister David Faber has written to Mr Lloyd demanding to know what took place at his meetings with diplomat John Flynn, the Foreign Secretary's special representative in Sierra Leone, and with non- government organisations on 19 March and 1 April respectively.

The minister insisted last week that he had not given approval for a breach of the UN arms embargo, but did not disclose the substance of his discussions at the two meetings.

Mr Faber says in his letter: "As the Foreign Secretary said at Questions, Sandline is a `big player' in Sierra Leone. I am sure you will consider it a reasonable question to ask whether Sandline was discussed at meetings with individuals and organisations heavily involved in Sierra Leone.

"Indeed, some would consider that it is inconceivable that the activities of Sandline were not discussed." Mr Faber asks again whether Sandline International was mentioned at the two meetings, and if not, why the minister did not say so last week.

Mr Faber added: "We have had very little talk about Mr Flynn as yet. He was appointed by Robin Cook as special representative to Sierra Leone. He has certainly held meetings with Tony Lloyd, and it seems most extraordinary to suggest that he was not aware of Sandline and would never have mentioned the company at these meetings."

Focus, page 23

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