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Mr. Cook: First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support and I entirely echo what he said about the courage and professionalism of British troops. Once again, we have seen how fortunate we are in that respect. I also join in what he said about the family of the detained British officer. We understood at the weekend, when we

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last heard, that he was alive, safe and well, but plainly nobody can relax until his release has been obtained. The United Nations has sent missions and has used intermediaries. We very much hope that that will be successful in securing the early release of all the UN detainees, and our own British officer in particular.

The right hon. Gentleman was quite right in describing the appalling brutality of the RUF and its members. They are particularly given to lopping off the limbs of those who do not subscribe to their view of society and the world: there are many young children in Sierra Leone who now have neither arm as a result of their actions. They have also indulged in systematic rape, and we know that some of the women who were captured for that are still kept in a condition of effective sexual slavery. It is also the case that they abduct children and force them into their operations. There are probably about 2,000 children at present being compelled to act as child soldiers with the RUF.

I entirely echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about the brutal, nasty nature of the RUF and the need to contain it, and that is why I invite him to reflect again on the language that he used about the UN operation. The message from the House should not be that we are about to accept the collapse of the UN operation or that, reading between the lines, we might be secretly gratified to see its collapse. We all want to work to make a success of that operation, and Britain will take every step that we can to do so.

I would have thought that it would be welcome to the House to hear that the presence of British forces will maintain the international airport for the supply of that UN force. We cannot simultaneously decry the brutal character of the RUF and be unwilling to establish a bridgehead for the UN to enter.

We will continue to review daily the mandate for the British force and the time scale for its remaining, and we will weigh the value of its presence against the security and safety of those who are in it.

We understand that the overwhelming majority of British nationals are in Freetown. We cannot be precise about numbers because we do not know how many people have voluntarily left in the past few days, given the deteriorating situation. Some are still further up country, particularly some who are working for non-governmental organisations outside Freetown. We hope that we will be able to make contact with them when possible and that they will be able to return to Freetown and take part in the evacuation.

No other European nation is operating an evacuation plan, but we are the only European nation with a diplomatic presence in Freetown. We accept our obligation in those circumstances to act on behalf of other European nations, as we would expect them to do if the situation were reversed.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): This is a timely response to the continuing crisis in a friendly Commonwealth country. We know that many Commonwealth countries in southern Africa have committed manpower and materiel to help President Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has no democratic mandate. By contrast, President Kabbah in Sierra Leone does have a democratic mandate. Can we expect a similar response from Commonwealth countries

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in southern Africa, following the clear promises that were made as a Commonwealth to President Kabbah at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in autumn 1997?

Mr. Cook: It is certainly true that several Commonwealth countries have a presence in the Congo, on both sides. In relation to Sierra Leone, no country could have done more than Nigeria has done in providing leadership. It has done so at considerable cost to the Nigerian armed forces, having lost around 1,000 men in fighting in Sierra Leone. Nigeria still has two battalions in Sierra Leone, which are now attached to the UN forces. We are in contact with Nigeria to see if it can in any way strengthen its contribution in the current circumstances.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I offer my support for the action taken and for the stated objective. In particular, I associate myself with the Foreign Secretary's response with regard to the United Nations. It would be curious indeed if a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations were not willing to provide such assistance as he has just described.

The Foreign Secretary will accept that the mission may be no picnic--if he will forgive the colloquialism. The situation is deteriorating hourly. Is he able to say, perhaps after consultation with the Secretary of State for Defence, when HMS Illustrious will be available to provide air support, because there are circumstances in which that may become very important?

Is the Foreign Secretary familiar with the inelegant but illuminating American expression "mission creep"? It describes a situation in which troops deployed for one purpose slowly, under pressure of events and with the best intentions, find themselves drawn into operations for which they are not prepared, trained or equipped. Can we be satisfied that the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary will keep a close eye on the operations to ensure that that does not occur?

It is an open secret that plans for evacuation from another country several thousand miles to the south of Sierra Leone have been drawn up in recent weeks. Can we be satisfied that if it comes to the point of evacuation in Zimbabwe--although we all hope that it does not--there will be sufficient resources to enable that to take place? Does not the evacuation from Sierra Leone point up the importance of conducting those events effectively and efficiently, as an example, to make it clear that if we have to carry out a similar mission in Zimbabwe, we will be well able to do so?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for stressing our duties as a permanent member of the Security Council. It is plainly incumbent on us to do all that we can to assist the UN presence in Sierra Leone. HMS Illustrious is available now, in the sense that it has been detached from its present duties. If required, it could reach Sierra Leone in a matter of days.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether those troops being deployed have been trained for such a mission. The spearhead battalion is specifically on call as a rapid reaction force in the event of such an evacuation being required. It is prepared and trained for the task and will do its job professionally and competently.

I heard what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about another country, but I hope that he will forgive me if I do not follow him down that path. Following

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discussion of evacuation plans, threats are now being made to British nationals in Zimbabwe. The less that we encourage that, the better.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Rightly or wrongly, the Government have made a major, open-ended commitment. Does that commitment have the approval of Jerry Rawlings and the Government of Ghana?

Mr. Cook: I cannot say that we have consulted President Rawlings specifically on the statement that I have made, but Ghana has been very supportive of the efforts made by ECOWAS and ECOMOG to restore peace in Sierra Leone. It is a full supporter of the Lome agreement, and I have no reason to doubt that the Government of Ghana would associate themselves fully with many of the things that I have said about the RUF.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): The right hon. Gentleman will know that the House is massively in favour of support for the democratic Government of Sierra Leone, and that it condemns absolutely the terrifying behaviour of the RUF. However, I hope that he will be kind enough to answer two questions. First, is not the lesson to be learned from this matter that, when an agreement such as the Lome agreement is in doubt and United Nations troops are sent in, they must be armed sufficiently to cope with the type of situation that can arise? In Sierra Leone, for example, 500 such troops have been captured.

Secondly, what does the Foreign Secretary mean when he says that Britain will not abandon its commitment to Sierra Leone? That could be taken as a very wide statement, which might well mean that we would have to use British troops for some considerable time to sustain a peace structure in Sierra Leone. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can give the House a little more detail of what his statement means, so that it is not misinterpreted.

Mr. Cook: I am happy to pick up the right hon. Gentleman's second point. As I said in my statement, Britain is the leading international country providing support for the peace process. We have put in more money than any other nation--[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asks me to elaborate, and I am doing so. Britain has put in more bilateral aid than any other nation, and almost £70 million has been committed to the peace process over the past two years.

In military terms, we are in the lead when it comes to training an army for the Government of Sierra Leone. One of the tragedies for the country is that the Government have no army, as all the members of the former army deserted in 1997.

We are also providing 15 UN observers attached to the UN force, but we have no intention of providing combat troops for that force. I hope that I have reassured the right hon. Gentleman on that point.

I have much sympathy with the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the lessons to be learned from this episode. When UN member states contribute forces to UN operations, it is imperative that they provide both the appropriate number of troops and all the equipment that

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they need. It is the responsibility of contributor nations to decide what equipment and weapons troops should take to such operations.

The UN pays for such contributions. When I spoke to Kofi Annan at the weekend, I suggested that in future the UN should assess not only the quantity of troops that it pays for in such operations, but the quality of their support and discipline.

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