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Sunday, May 10, 1998 Published at 20:51 GMT 21:51 UK


Fresh allegations on arms-to-Africa
image: [ Sierra Leone: what British involvement was there in the overthrow of a regime? ]
Sierra Leone: what British involvement was there in the overthrow of a regime?

The British Government has denied fresh allegations that it colluded with mercenaries who flew weapons to Sierra Leone in apparent breach of a United Nations embargo.

Photographs published in a British newspaper purport to show Royal Navy engineers servicing a helicopter flown by mercenaries in the capital Freetown shortly after it had fallen to a Nigerian-led intervention force.

The BBC's Mark Doyle: I heard British navy speak of mercenaries (1'35")
These are cited as further proof that the British were involved in the overthrow of a regime which seized power last summer.

The Ministry of Defence has rejected this interpretation of the photos.

A spokesman for the MoD said: "It is true HMS Cornwall was deployed to Sierra Leone to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the people."

He said the boat arrived once the counter-coup installing Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was over.

The controversy involves a company called Sandline which is facing criminal investigation from customs for allegedly breaching United Nations sanctions by supplying weapons to forces loyal to the deposed president.

The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, speaking on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme, said: "The photographs you see in the papers are photographs of the helicopter of the commander of the West African military forces.

"Indeed it is a helicopter that was on contract to Sandline, but it was on the ship not because HMS Cornwall was cooperating in any kind of mercenary activity, it was on the ship because the West African commander was cooperating with HMS Cornwall in its humanitarian effort."

[ image: Tim Spicer of Sandline International: facing an investigation]
Tim Spicer of Sandline International: facing an investigation
Mr Cook has vehemently denied ministers knew of the deal despite the company naming five diplomats it claims were aware of the arms shipment.

This embarrassment has been confounded by the British Government pronouncing its desire to pursue an "ethical" foreign policy.

'Some cooperation' with mercenaries

The BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle, who was in Freetown during the conflict, says he saw a helicopter with a white crew flying to a British navy ship just offshore.

He says he heard British naval officers talk about advice they had received from from people they had referred to as "the mercenaries".

He says this shows there was some co-operation between British officials and mercenaries during the battle for Sierra Leone.

[ image: Kabbah: restored to power]
Kabbah: restored to power
But he adds it remains unclear what role the mercenaries played in helping President Kabbah's forces regain power.

The Nigerian army led the forces loyal to President Kabbah. It received considerable praise in Africa for doing so, because the military junta it deposed was unpopular in Sierra Leone and across the region.

But even the British Government's contacts with the Nigerians could prove embarrassing in London.

Nigeria itself is supposed to be the subject of an arms embargo because of the human rights abuses committed by its military regime.

Part of Sandline's claims have been that it offered tactical advice to officers of HMS Cornwall which visited Sierra Leone to provide humanitarian help shortly after the battle for Freetown.


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