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Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): The Foreign Secretary said that he would raise the matter of Sierra Leone with his colleagues in the European Union, but he did not say what he would say to them. What proposals might he have when he raises the matter?

In connection with present assistance, there is the British military mission. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that it would be right to give, if required, military assistance to the legitimate Government, although not, of course, to the rebels?

Mr. Cook: With respect to the forthcoming meeting on Monday, I shall make the same appeal to my colleagues in Europe as I have already made to other Governments, including only on Saturday to Madeleine Albright of the United States--that is, for other western nations to join us in ensuring that ECOMOG has the logistical support, the equipment and the finance to continue with its important work.

We should remember that the ECOMOG expeditionary force in Sierra Leone costs Nigeria £1 million a day. That is a large sum for a Government who are wrestling with their legacy from years of abuse and corruption by the previous military junta. In terms of the supply of weapons to Sierra Leone, for some time, the legal position has been that it is not contrary to UN law to supply the Sierra Leone Government, but it would be contrary to the UN resolution and embargo to supply the rebel forces. Sierra Leone is a country with too many forces too well armed. One way to secure peace and stability there would be to dry up the supply of firearms to forces outside the Government, and we shall play our part in doing so.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Will my right hon. Friend look at the wider implications of this conflict? It is one of a number of conflicts in Africa where secessionist groups or attempted coups have led to civil conflict and mass movements of refugees. Is it not time that the international community, particularly the Commonwealth and the European Union, worked collectively towards building an international force or security architecture to assist small countries facing well-armed insurgency?

Mr. Cook: We are very willing to play our part in peacekeeping intervention. In the context of Africa, Britain plays a leading role in training African forces for peacekeeping missions. In terms of troops on the ground, the correct way to proceed is to look to African states, through bodies such as ECOWAS--the Economic Community of West African States--in west Africa and

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the Organisation of African Unity elsewhere to supply troops for the peacekeeping enterprises. We can certainly supply the training and some of the logistic and communications support, and we are doing much of that in the case of ECOMOG.

The great tragedy of Sierra Leone is that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it is potentially rich in diamonds and in agricultural and fishery resources. It is essential that we provide stability, security and peace, so that those resources can be properly exploited by the people, and not by the armed forces who are rebelling against the Government.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Is President Kabbah in Freetown or in Conakry, and is our high commissioner, Mr. Penfold, with him? If he is, has the Foreign Office ensured that, this time, the high commissioner has secure communications with London--something that was missing during the previous situation?

Lastly, the Foreign Secretary said that we were supplying non-lethal equipment to ECOMOG. If it requested lethal equipment--which it may well do--would the British Government supply it?

Mr. Cook: On the positioning of the two people to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred, we understand that President Kabbah remains in Freetown. Mr. Penfold, our high commissioner in Sierra Leone, was withdrawn over Christmas with other British nationals and has since been in Britain. He recently returned to Sierra Leone, and he is currently in Conakry awaiting a flight to take him to Freetown. Once back in Freetown, he will have access to our high commission and to the communications that were always available there.

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, we shall consider any such request. However, he will be aware that there is an embargo against Nigeria. Progress in meeting such a request must be balanced against progress within Nigeria on the democratic track, which, at some future time, we are ready to reward with a winding down of the embargo that was placed on the previous military junta.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the great concern of the large Sierra Leonean community in

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my constituency and across London about events inSierra Leone and how grateful they are for the Government's humanitarian effort. He will also be aware that longer-term policy issues arise out of the civil war that has criss-crossed this region since independence. One of those issues is whether, in the future, the House should consider what could be done to regulate companies of mercenaries such as Sandline.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for expressing her appreciation of the British role in Sierra Leone. We are not aware of any British mercenary involvement in the current conflict, but we shall obviously try to ensure that any such activity is within the bounds set by United Nations resolutions, which we shall seek to enforce if any mercenary activity is brought to our attention.

At their meeting in Abidjan at the end of December, the countries of the region called for the withdrawal of all external mercenary involvement in Sierra Leone. Those countries are suspicious that there is substantial mercenary involvement on the side of the rebels. It would be in the interests of the country and the region if that mercenary involvement were stopped.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that he is pursuing a negotiated settlement to this dispute, and is not putting international and British forces on one side of a civil war? Does he agree that the election of President Kabbah is under question by many Sierra Leoneans? Would it not be better to promote a settlement in which we work towards the election of a Government elected by the all the people of Sierra Leone under Commonwealth supervision?

Mr. Cook: We should remember that President Kabbah is the elected leader of the Government and the people of Sierra Leone. The rebel forces have a very robust approach to democracy and freedom of expression: they lop off the arms of anyone who disagrees with them. In those circumstances, I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's even-handed approach. We are committed to restoring the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone at some appropriate point. It will be necessary to negotiate a political settlement that provides for the demobilisation and demilitarisation of the rebel forces, but we must not be tricked into thinking that these are legitimate rebels fighting a civil war with any degree of popular support.

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Points of Order

3.50 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During ForeignOffice questions, the Foreign Secretary--perhaps inadvertently--gave an entirely wrong answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) on the question of the return of Senator Pinochet to Chile. The Foreign Secretary said that Senator Pinochet could not be allowed to return to Chile without setting aside the rule of law. It has never been in dispute, and was expressly--

Madam Speaker: Order. I recognise that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a distinguished Member of this House. However, he knows that this is an argument that he must have with the Government, and not by means of a point of order. He must find other methods through the Order Paper and through debate in this House to pursue this matter.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): On a wholly different point of order, of which I have given you prior notice, Madam Speaker. In column 631 of yesterday's Hansard, you will see that I made some critical comments of the former Paymaster General. The then Deputy Speaker in the Chair intervened and said:

If that rule were to be implemented in the strict way expressed by the Deputy Speaker, there would be no political debate. I suspect that the Deputy Speaker went

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somewhat further than he may have intended. Perhaps, either on this or some subsequent occasion, you might care to clarify the position.

Madam Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order, and I have read the ruling of my Deputy to which he has drawn attention. There is a fine line to be drawn between criticism of a Member's political action and their personal conduct which was not crossed in the exchanges yesterday. I am satisfied that, following the remarks made about the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), it was appropriate for my Deputy to caution the House. I believe that it was a caution that Members should not reflect on the personal conduct of the former Paymaster General. As the House well knows, the personal conduct of hon. Members can be discussed only on a substantive motion, drawn in proper terms. This protection, which is afforded to all right hon. and hon. Members, is set out in the current edition of "Erskine May", pages 384-5. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for letting me put this on record.

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