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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The Assembly is to be reinstated this month, but the Secretary of State said, I thought very revealingly, that he did not know whether deactivation would have been completed even by June 2001. Can he therefore give any indication as to when he will judge whether the deactivation process has been a success and, in the light of that, what the status of the Assembly should be? Can he please tell us: will these now increasingly famous dumps be in Northern Ireland, in the Republic or in both?

Mr. Mandelson: I suspect, in direct answer to the right hon. Gentleman's last question, that the dumps will be in the south, rather than the north, but I cannot say that for sure or exclusively. However, that is what I suspect will be the case.

I am not plucking particular dates or standards, or particular points in time by which I will judge whether the process has been successful or not. It has to be continuous. We have continuously to keep all this under review, continuously to keep the pressure up, continuously to maintain the engagement between the paramilitary

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organisations and the de Chastelain commission. There is absolutely no point in descending for a day in a month, looking around, asking what is going on and simply walking away and losing sight of what is happening between those times. That is not how I want people to behave. It would not be the best approach to take.

Madam Speaker: Thank you. The House is now ready to take the second statement.

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Sierra Leone

4.36 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): With permission, I shall make a statement on Sierra Leone. I regret that it is one of the gravest statements that I have had to make to the House.

Over the past week, Revolutionary United Front rebels have broken their commitment to the Lome peace agreement and have returned to conflict. They have made a number of attacks on the United Nations forces and on demobilisation camps. At least four Kenyan members of the UN forces have been killed in action. Around 500 United Nations personnel have been detained, including one British UN military observer.

At the weekend, the rebels appeared to be moving on Freetown. The situation in Freetown is tense. I spoke at midday to our high commissioner there, who reported that the police had been successful in arresting a number of rebel bands and had seized arms which they had been about to distribute.

Tens of thousands of residents of Freetown loyal to President Kabbah have today marched on the residence of the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, which they have surrounded. From about 1 o'clock this afternoon, the sound of gunfire could be heard from that location. That development has serious implications for the security situation within Freetown and for the future actions of rebel forces commanded by Foday Sankoh.

Our first duty is to protect the lives of British citizens in Sierra Leone and of others for whom we have consular responsibility. We believe that there are up to 500 British nationals in Sierra Leone, mostly in the Freetown area. There is a smaller number of European Union nationals and Commonwealth nationals without diplomatic representation, for whom we have consular responsibility.

Our immediate advice to British residents in Freetown is to stay indoors. This afternoon, the high commission has activated its evacuation plan and is contacting British residents through the local warden network to give them the necessary instructions.

In view of the limited commercial opportunities to leave Sierra Leone and the current insecurity, we have taken the precautionary measure of deployment of a number of British military assets to West Africa. The forward elements of the current spearhead battalion, the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment arrived in Dakar, Senegal over the weekend. They are currently moving from Dakar to Freetown. In addition, HMS Ocean, support vessels with 42 Commando and a number of helicopters are moving towards the region and will be at Sierra Leone early next week. HMS Illustrious has been withdrawn from a NATO exercise to be available as needed.

Those measures have been taken to ensure that we are best placed to respond quickly to safeguard the security of British nationals. Our forces will ensure the security of the international Sierra Leone airport. Not only is that of immediate utility for the evacuation, but it is valuable in allowing the UN forces to continue to build up.

The UN force is currently about 3,000 short of its mandated strength of more than 11,000. We are urging the nations contributing to the UN force to expedite the

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additional numbers. I spoke last night to Madeleine Albright, and I welcome the United States's offer to consider strategic airlift to fly in units from the Jordanian and Bangladeshi armies.

I have also spoken to Kofi Annan, the Secretary- General of the United Nations, and offered further logistical support, such as vehicles, for the UN force. I pressed upon him that one of the immediate lessons of the past few days is that nations contributing forces to the UN must also contribute the equipment necessary to fulfil the UN's mandate.

Responsibility for the current outbreak of violence lies squarely with the RUF rebels and their leader, Foday Sankoh. A year ago, he committed himself to a peace process that offered re-integration and retraining to his troops in exchange for demilitarisation. Considerable progress had been made on that process. UN forces had deployed across two thirds of the country. Almost half the armed groups had registered at demobilisation centres, and a significant quantity of weapons had been surrendered. Work had begun on training a new defence force for the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone, and on preparations for democratic elections next year. All that progress has been put at risk by the RUF reneging on commitments that it has made.

One of the triggers for the current conflict appears to have been the attempt by the UN forces to enter the diamond-producing region that is held by the RUF and provides it with weapons and friends. That development underlines the importance of the international debate, in which Britain has been a leading voice, for more transparent regulation of the trade in uncut diamonds. I shall be pressing at the forthcoming meeting of Group of Eight Foreign Ministers for an international system to certify that diamonds do not come from conflict areas. We should not allow diamonds to be sold for the price of weapons or at the cost of lives.

I want to make it clear to the House and to the people of Sierra Leone that Britain will not abandon its commitment to Sierra Leone. Britain has done more than any other country outside the region to restore legitimate government in Sierra Leone. We are the largest national donor to the peace process; we hosted the international donors conference earlier this year; and we are in the lead in training the new army for the Government of Sierra Leone.

We shall continue to take the lead at the UN and elsewhere to restore the peace process. We must not allow a few thousand rebels to prevent the end to violence, and the peace in which to get on with their lives for which 3 million people in Sierra Leone desperately hunger.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): I thank the Foreign Secretary for making that statement. The whole House will be desperately concerned about the violence in Sierra Leone. No one could begin to excuse the conduct of a gang of thugs who have indulged in some of the most appalling acts of vicious brutality against civilians, including large numbers of young children.

With respect to the Foreign Secretary, it seems to most of us that it has not been only in the past week that the Lome peace accord has broken down. Sadly, most of the Revolutionary United Front has never accepted that peace,

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but continued with a loathsome campaign of killing and maiming. We all wish nothing but the best for the people of that unhappy country, who are being used as the playthings of some thoroughly nasty individuals.

The House's thoughts will particularly be with the British nationals who are still in Sierra Leone, including the Foreign Office personnel, and with their families at home who are bound to be concerned about their safety. We are especially concerned for the British service man attached to the United Nations forces who has been taken hostage by the RUF, and for his family at this anxious time.

We strongly support the decision to send the contingent of our armed services to Sierra Leone. We wish them good fortune in the tasks that may lie ahead of them.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House how many British nationals are still in the country, and whether they are able to leave without impediment? Where are they concentrated? He said that most of them seem to be in Freetown, but how far-flung are the rest? Do any of them seem to be trapped in areas held by the RUF? Is he satisfied that everything that can be done by the United Nations to free the British service man is being done? As I understand it, he was there under the aegis of the United Nations.

Given the evidence that Britain's armed forces are already stretched dangerously thin, will the Foreign Secretary make it categorically clear that the British contingent in Sierra Leone has one mandate, and one mandate only: to get the British nationals out? Will he assure the House that the sending of, effectively, three battalion strengths of the Parachute Regiment and Marines, as well as five ships--plus, we are now told, an aircraft carrier--is for that purpose only, and not part of a wider military commitment to shore up a United Nations operation that appears to be close to collapse?

The Foreign Secretary's remarks about securing the airport partially to enable the further build-up of UN forces will have rung some alarm bells. There would be no public support, I believe, for allowing British forces to be sucked into a civil war in Sierra Leone. What benchmarks and time limits have been set in place to ensure that the operation to evacuate British nationals does not gradually extend into a much wider mission?

Do any of the other countries with nationals still in Sierra Leone have plans to send forces to help with the evacuation? If so, will Britain take part in a joint evacuation operation?

It is at times like this, when British nationals abroad are in danger, that we have cause to be glad that our armed forces, in their courage and professionalism, are the envy of the world. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that such circumstances underline how important it is that our commitments should not outstretch our capabilities, and does he accept that the sorry tale of Sierra Leone shows that, with the best will in the world, there are limits to what the United Nations can do in attempting to keep a peace that has never been properly struck?

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