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The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"Banning illegal diamonds is not going to stop smuggling completely"
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The BBC's Justin Webb
"Antwerp revolves around diamonds"
 real 28k

Robin Cook, UK Foreign Secretary
"There remains a long way to go to before Sierra Leone is free from conflict"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Sierra Leone diamond ban urged

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has told MPs that the UK is pressing for an international trade embargo on diamonds from Sierra Leone.

Mr Cook said that Britain was exploring with its partners at the UN Security Council a resolution banning the trade in diamonds from Sierra Leone except where they are certified as legitimate by the country's government.

In a Commons statement on the situation in the west African country, the foreign secretary revealed that he is to visit Sierra Leone on 8 June to discuss with President Kabbah what else the UK could do to help.

He also announced that the UK's general military withdrawal remained on schedule.

The foreign secretary said that diamonds had fuelled the rebellion for the past nine years. The people of the country were among the poorest in the world yet the rebels could purchase vast quantities of arms.

Pressure on Liberia

He said that the ultimate objective was for the government of Sierra Leone to take control of the diamond-mining areas, but that in the short term the trade in illicit stones needed bringing under control.

One of the main problems would be winning the cooperation of neighbouring countries.

Mr Cook said he regretted the fact that there was continuing evidence linking the Revolutionary United Front rebels with the Liberian government of Charles Taylor.

He said the UK was working with the United States and the European Commission to put pressure on Liberia to end those links.

UK to continuing training

The foreign secretary said the security situation in Sierra Leone was much improved, in part because of the UK presence, adding that the bulk of British military forces would be withdrawn on schedule by the middle of this month.

British commandos would be pulled out, relinquishing control of Lungi airport to the UN forces, which should by then have reached the planned level of 11,000, he said.

Britain would continue to provide valuable back-up to the UN operation, including better communications and military advice for its headquarters, he said.

Mr Cook said Britain would provide a short term training team to help train the Sierra Leone army's new recruits. The training would be conducted by around 180 personnel drawn from the 2 Royal Anglian regiment, supported by HMS Argyle and RFA Sir Percivale.

Britain was the "lead nation" in training a new Sierra Leone army, he said, "We propose to accelerate our training in order to achieve a rapid boost in troop capacity."

Given the recent furore about a 14-year-old Sierra Leone soldier armed with a British weapon, Mr Cook made a point of saying that all British-trained recruits would be over 18.

Tory call for inquiry

Shadow Foreign Secretary Francis Maude said his party would support a ban as it would cut off the RUF's funds, but he also called for a full inquiry into why British troops had needed to be deployed in Sierra Leone.

Mr Maude said the inquiry should look into what role the Foreign Office played in pressuring the Sierra Leone government into committing the "fatal error" of admitting the rebel leader Foday Sankoh into the government.

Mr Cook denied that any pressure had been placed on President Kabbah to sign the Lome Agreement: "We were only present as an observer. We did not broker the agreement. We did not witness the agreement."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell welcomed the diamond initiative, but added that it was also important to cut back on the arms trade to the rebels.

Mr Campbell also suggested that the Lome Agreement and the UN mandate were now "past their sell by date".

Mr Cook argued that the diamonds remained the key, adding that it would be a mistake to dismantle the Lome Agreement, though some changes were necessary..

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