MERCENARIES WERE told by a Foreign Office official to get round arms export rules by saying their military goods were mining equipment, a committee of MPs was told yesterday.
Colonel Tim Spicer told an inquiry into the "Arms to Africa" affair that officials were fully briefed about an embargo-busting operation in Sierra Leone, but never suggested there was a problem.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons heard evidence both from Col Spicer, who runs the Sandline International military company, and from Britain's High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold.
Sandline never took equipment from Britain because there was not time, but it did ship 30 tonnes of arms from eastern Europe in breach of a UN embargo.
Col Spicer said that when he met Foreign Office staff in January this year during planning of a counter-coup to restore the exiled government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, he discussed exporting a helicopter gun and night vision equipment from the UK.
When he asked if there was a way of shortening export licence procedures, he was told to say the goods were for a diamond mine with links to members of his company, he claimed. "There was some discussion about supplying it to a mining company and using it for what I wanted to use it for. The conversation ended with, `As long as it ends up with the mining company that's fine'," he said. The night vision equipment could be fitted to a helicopter used by the mine, but could also be used for firing guns at night, he said.
Col Spicer said he had about 20 contacts with the Foreign Office, including a meeting with officials and lunch with Mr Penfold. At no time did anyone suggest his plans to help to reinstate President Kabbah would breach a UN embargo or the British order that enforced it. When Customs and Excise officials raided his house he first rang a Foreign Office official to ask what was happening and then called Mr Penfold at home, believing he had government support.
Col Spicer said he discussed the issue with Mr Penfold during a Christmas lunch last year at which his firm's founder, Tony Buckingham, was also present. Mr Buckingham, who has major mineral interests in Sierra Leone and elsewhere as well as being linked to other mercenary groups, devised the "concept" of Sandline, Col Spicer said.
Mr Penfold told the committee that he was unaware there would be any illegality in shipping arms from Europe to Sierra Leone. He felt it was the responsibility of Col Spicer to check licensing regulations relating to his company's work.
The Foreign Office had always been careful never to rule out the use of force to restore President Kabbah's government, which it supported.
Mr Penfold said the role of Sandline was a minor one, with just a few advisers from the firm assisting 12,000 African troops, mainly from Nigeria.
"We can be proud that the British were the ones who took the lead on this. We fully supported the view of the people of Sierra Leone that they wanted their democratic government back," he said.
Mr Penfold and Col Spicer denied any intelligence service involvement in the operation. Mr Penfold said no one on his staff worked for the intelligence service, and Col Spicer said an ex-MI6 officer working for him had no conversations with current officers about his firm's plans.
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