OFFICERS FROM MI6 encouraged British mercenaries to break a United Nations arms embargo on Sierra Leone last year, The Independent has learnt.
Senior intelligence officials could be called before a House of Commons committee to explain their role in the "arms to Africa" affair. Members of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which meets today, will decide whether to ask the heads of MI6 and Defence intelligence to give evidence in closed session.
The involvement of Sandline International in the reinstatement of Sierra Leone's President last February caused a storm that threatened to unseat the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. The company claimed it had approval from Foreign Office officials when it shipped 30 tonnes of arms to the country in breach of the ban.
The official report into the affair by Sir Thomas Legg largely ignored the role of MI6, devoting less than one page out of 160 to its involvement. Intelligence experts expressed amazement at the assertion that they had nothing to do with the episode.
But now two senior politicians have told The Independent they have evidence that Sandline's operation was encouraged by MI6 officers. A senior Westminster figure who takes an interest in intelligence matters but who did not want to be named said: "There is no doubt in my mind they [MI6] all knew about this operation and approved of it. I think they encouraged it," he said.
Tam Dalyell, the veteran Labour MP for Linlithgow, has put down Parliamentary questions about the role of Peter Penfold, Britain's High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.
"The reason why I put down a whole series of questions about Penfold is that I know he had been encouraged by MI6 and the Foreign Service," he said. Mr Dalyell believes Britain's intervention to reinstate President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was justified.
A further inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee may take up the issue again. It will set a timetable for its investigation at today's meeting.
The committee's chairman, Donald Anderson, said some members had asked for intelligence chiefs to be called.
"There are means of seeing officers in secret. There are various suggestions as to who we would seek to fit into our three hearings, and obviously some colleagues have suggested that. Another thought it would be the chief of defence intelligence," he said.
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat defence and foreign affairs spokesman, said the revelation pointed to an operation set up so it could be denied by ministers.
"It was inconceivable that the activities of this company were not known to the security services. In fact it would be more of a cause for concern if what Sandline proposed had not been known," he said.
In his report on the affair, published in July, Sir Thomas said he had found little of any significance in intelligence reports sent from Sierra Leone during the crisis.
The committee has already resolved to call Mr Penfold, Sandline representatives and civil servants to give evidence, probably next month. However, it now seems possible that the officials from the Foreign Office's Equatorial Africa desk will not be called after all.
"Really our job is not to criticise individuals in the Foreign Office. It would be not only unprofessional but also unfair," Mr Anderson said.
It has long been known that Sandline, which stepped in after the government of President Kabbah was overthrown in a coup, has close links with the intelligence services. Its chief executive, Tim Spicer, was a staff office director of Special Forces in 1991-92 in charge of "doctrine development" and in 1988-89 he was responsible for intelligence in the 11th Armoured Brigade in Germany.
Tony Buckingham, who controls Sandline and a number of other companies from offices in London, is a former Special Boat Squadron officer.
Rupert Bowen, who has acted as the company's representative, is a former MI6 officer. He served in the army, at the Ministry of Defence and in the diplomatic service before retiring in 1993 as first secretary to Windhoek in Namibia.
Simon Mann, another figure with links to the company, is a former SAS troop commander who specialised in intelligence.
Now Mr Mann is Southern Africa manager for a mining company called Diamond Works, which shares London offices with Sandline. He set up another firm of mercenaries, Executive Outcomes, with MrBuckingham.
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