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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): We have followed recent events in Sierra Leone with grave concern. In December, the rebels moved closer to Freetown. On 23 December we took the decision to advise British citizens to leave immediately and organised a Royal Air Force airlift for those British nationals who wanted to leave.

The rebels entered Freetown on 6 January. There then followed more than a week of looting and anarchy in which the rebels amply demonstrated their brutality, which repeatedly has blighted Sierra Leone.

As a result of a counter-offensive by ECOMOG forces, mainly Nigerian troops, the rebels have since been driven out of most of Freetown. Many hundreds of ECOMOG troops have been killed in the fighting. The House will wish to pay its respect to the courage and sacrifice of those who have fought to sustain the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone. We are relieved that the capital has not fallen, but the situation remains worrying. Much of Freetown has been destroyed and much of the rest of the country remains in rebel hands.

Britain has been the principal supporter in the international community for President Kabbah and the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone. First, we have provided more material help to the ECOMOG and Sierra Leone forces than any other nation from outside the region. Following two conversations that I had during the recess with the Nigerian Foreign Minister, we released early this month an additional £1 million pounds-worth of trucks and communication equipment. We have also shared with ECOMOG intelligence on the situation on the ground, and have provided it with maps of Sierra Leone to which it previously did not have access. This morning General Abubakar, Head of State of Nigeria, rang my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to express his thanks for British support and assistance.

Secondly, we have been active in rallying support within the international community. We secured a statement from both the Security Council and the European Union condemning the rebels, and I have given notice that I intend to raise Sierra Leone at next Monday's meeting of European Foreign Ministers. I have also sent a personal message to President Taylor of Liberia demanding that he withdraw support from the rebel forces.

Finally, Britain remains much the largest national donor to Sierra Leone of reconstruction aid and humanitarian assistance. Since the restoration of President Kabbah, Britain has committed more than £20 million in assistance to Sierra Leone. HMS Norfolk has now been stationed off Sierra Leone to provide humanitarian support and assistance. I can today announce to the House that the Government will be urgently releasing another £1 million of humanitarian assistance for the people of Sierra Leone and logistical support for ECOMOG.

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We still have a long way to go to restore an integrated, stable Sierra Leone. Britain will remain fully committed to alleviating the suffering of its people, and to providing practical and political support for their right to be ruled by the legitimate Government of their choice.

Mr. Hughes: I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I associate myself and, I imagine, all other hon. Members, with his statement of concern and condolence to those who have suffered under what, we understand, have been barbarous conditions.

The Government's efforts have been greatly appreciated in Sierra Leone and by the large Sierra Leonean community in Britain, who are hugely concerned about both the present and the future.

I shall be more specific on one or two matters. Will food aid, which I gather is greatly needed, and assistance with rehousing continue? The Foreign Secretary rightly said that large parts of Freetown have been destroyed. There is a large refugee problem and I understand that items such as tents would be greatly appreciated. Help is also needed in relocating people--in a civilian context, helicopters and other forms of transport would be very acceptable.

Secondly, and understandably, the humanitarian agencies withdrew at about the turn of the year. Are the Government able to be part of the international effort to bring them back to do the work for which they are hugely respected and very much needed?

Lastly, may I encourage the Foreign Secretary, along the lines of a sign that he gave to the House, to say that the Government, together with the Commonwealth and their European Union partners, will work for the security of Sierra Leone, especially along its frontiers, so that it can be allowed to redevelop with integrity and without risk of people from outside coming into the country, something that has so often destabilised it in the past?

Mr. Cook: I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said in recognition of efforts. He speaks with authority, because he has a large constituency interest in this matter.

We are indeed looking at what might be the most appropriate aid for Sierra Leone. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has arranged for supplies to be flown out to Sierra Leone. They are being distributed with the help of the helicopter from HMS Norfolk, and that was the prime purpose of stationing HMS Norfolk in the region. We are focusing at the moment on urgent medical supplies, but, obviously, the food situation will be kept under review.

I regret to say to the House that the hon. Gentleman is quite right about the refugee situation. We believe that there are more than 200,000 refugees, which is a large proportion of a relatively small country. They will require substantial assistance for relocation and resettlement. James Jonah, the Minister of Finance and senior Cabinet Minister in the Government of Sierra Leone, is currently in London and is, I believe, having talks tomorrow with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Finally, of course the humanitarian aspects of this tragedy can be corrected only within a secure framework of stability. That is why we have tried to bring the sides together, and will continue to press for negotiations and mediation to try to resolve this tragic conflict.

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That requires a two-track approach: first, robust engagement on the military front, which we are supporting, but also negotiation to secure political agreement to disarmament and demobilisation.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): The whole House will want to join in the expressions of condolence--and, indeed, the tribute--from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and the Foreign Secretary. The reports that we have read of the scenes in Freetown are gruesome--none the less so because they have not featured on our television screens to the same extent as atrocities elsewhere in the world.

Can the Foreign Secretary explain to the House the remit that has been given to HMS Norfolk and to Brigadier David Richards, the leader of the British military reconnaissance team? Are arms finding their way to the rebels in Sierra Leone from Liberia and elsewhere? If so, is that not a flagrant breach of the United Nations embargo? What action is the UN taking to deal with that breach?

Mr. Cook: Let me clarify the fact that the role of HMS Norfolk is very much in support of humanitarian assistance and relief, and its helicopter has already been making a practical contribution to that. We do not intend for any British military assets to become involved in the military conflict, although we have supplied ECOMOG with non-lethal equipment, such as trucks and communication equipment, and are supporting it with intelligence.

On the question of the supply of arms, the legal position is perfectly clear. There is a UN embargo, which applies to any of the rebel forces or the forces outside the control of ECOMOG or the Sierra Leone Government. Any breach of that embargo would be a crime in British law. I am not, at present, aware of any such breach. I have heard of a press report of such a breach, and that report has been drawn to the attention of Customs and Excise.

I agree absolutely with the right hon. and learned Member that the scenes in Freetown were harrowing. We must make sure that, as we vigorously pursue those who commit atrocities within the European continent, there are no double standards and that we equally vigorously pursue those who are the perpetrators of such atrocities in Africa.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Sierra Leone is a friendly Commonwealth country, and it is right, in its time of travail, that this Government should play such as a leading role in its relief. My right hon. Friend mentioned two points. First, it is alleged that British companies are involved in the supply of arms to the rebels--the AFRC/RUF. How rigorously is Customs and Excise looking into those allegations, which were made two weeks or so ago in the British press? Secondly, President Taylor of Liberia is alleged to be not only supplying arms and men to the AFRC/RUF rebels, but making territorial claims on Sierra Leone. To what extent are we and our allies seeking to exercise leverage on President Taylor? I presume that he is fairly dependent on external aid, so there must be means by which we can put pressure on him.

Mr. Cook: It is not for me to speak on behalf of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, but I am confident that it

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will rigorously pursue the evidence and any lead that it has about breaches of the embargo. On the other matter that my hon. Friend raises, I sent a strong message to President Taylor on 31 December demanding that all support for the rebels stop immediately. My hon. Friend rightly points out the extent to which Liberia also requires support from the outside world. I pointed out to President Taylor that continuing support for instability and insecurity in Sierra Leone could damage Liberia's standing with international financial institutions. It is important that all countries of the region support the regional strategy of trying to ensure stability and security in Sierra Leone and play their part in backing the ECOMOG forces.

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