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Mr. Cook: I have expressed our view to Liberia on many occasions during the past year--including face to face with the Foreign Minister of Liberia. In fairness, the surface evidence of the past few days is that Liberia has actually been putting pressure on Foday Sankoh to halt the violence and not to return to conflict. The Liberians are also playing a part in trying to negotiate the release of the detainees. At present, we do not have a complaint about the conduct of the Government of Liberia, although we are well aware of the long history to which the hon. Gentleman alludes.
In relation to diamonds, the international debate sparked off a very welcome contribution by De Beers, which made a responsible statement and suggestions. At the United Nations, the Fowler report on Angola highlighted several measures that could be taken, some of which are perhaps rather more ambitious than international agreement might attain. However, within the G8 we are making good progress towards a statement at the forthcoming meeting of Foreign Ministers in July. I hope that there will be some product when we meet--but, of course, that depends on agreement among eight countries.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I believe that the Government have acted rightly and properly in the grave circumstances described by my right hon. Friend. He mentioned his telephone conversation with Madeleine Albright and the American support. Has he made an approach to the French, or have they offered to give military support? Are the Russians and the Chinese being kept fully informed of developments in order to obtain their support within the UN?
Mr. Cook: We have held discussions in the UN Security Council, which, of course, involved all the permanent members. The Security Council issued a robust resolution condemning the actions of the RUF. I know that the council is constantly re-evaluating how it can support the mission in the field. Several British personnel are attached to the UN in relation to the planning and maintenance of that operation. We shall continue to use that and our role as a permanent member to keep the matter at the top of the UN's priorities.
We do not expect a military contribution from the French. They would reasonably expect us to be in the lead over Sierra Leone, just as we would expect them to be in the lead on an African country with which they had a historic connection. I briefed all the Ministers of the European Union when I met them at the weekend. I received strong support from them. We issued a statement condemning the actions of the RUF and supporting the UN mission.
Mr. Cook: We anticipate that most of the battalion will be in place by tonight. The movement of the Army and the military assets that I described has been rapid, expeditious and impressively professional--a sentiment that I hope the House shares.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): No one will envy the Foreign Secretary and the Government the difficult decisions that they will face during the coming days. However, what the House, the country and--above all--our armed forces are owed is clarity about the mission. As the Foreign Secretary told us that the RUF has broken its commitment to the Lome accord, is it his view that the country has returned to a state of civil war? In effect, is the UN mission to implement the accord over? If the UN is to remain in the country, does it need a new mandate and a new mission? The whole question of the UN presence is one for grave consideration. The Foreign Secretary talked about logistics and giving vehicles to the UN force, but he made it explicit that there would be no combat troops. Does the Foreign Secretary understand my concern that we are on a slippery slope, with an unclear mandate for the UN? He said that the first duty of our armed forces was to protect British nationals, but then said that Britain would take a lead in restoring the peace process. Will he make it clear to the House that the armed forces currently being deployed to Sierra Leone will not be drawn into the civil war on the side of the Government?
Mr. Cook: I can certainly assure the House--as I have already done--that we have no intention of deploying combat troops as part of the UN mission. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). We are a permanent member of the Security Council. We cannot maintain that role and our leading role in the UN if we refuse to provide even logistic support to a UN force that is in the country and if we refuse to provide all possible bases on which that force can succeed--even though we may not be part of it.
I frankly disagree with the sentiments expressed on whether the United Nations mission should be withdrawn and on whether its mandate was over because it had failed. I cannot think of a better way to give comfort and encouragement to the RUF than to agree with those sentiments.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): With the Secretary of State for Defence at his side, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to endorse the need for highly mobile rapid reaction forces such as we have deployed to Dakar? No unit is better suited to that purpose than the Parachute Regiment, which was deployed last June in Kosovo.
In response to the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), the Foreign Secretary suggested that the spearhead battalion would move to Freetown, presumably with the intention of holding the international airport there. Are the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State
Mr. Cook: At present, Lungi airport is in the hands of the United Nations, so we do not anticipate resistance when we deploy there. Yes, we are confident that we have sufficient troops for the purpose for which they have been sent.
The hon. Gentleman is right to stress how this event underlines the importance of rapid reaction forces, and we attached priority to them in the recent strategic defence review. I had a chance to observe the Parachute Regiment in action in Pristina when I visited the town. It did an extremely professional job and maintained peace in the streets of Pristina. It is a tribute to the regiment that the local people greatly regretted its withdrawal.
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Could the Foreign Secretary tell us a little more about security sector reform? He said that £70 million had been spent already in aid for security sector reform. What does he think that money has achieved over the past 12 months and can we have an assurance that aid to Sierra Leone will continue?
Mr. Cook: First, the £70 million--it is actually £69 million plus--was for all the aid and development assistance in Sierra Leone and not just for the security sector; it has been committed, but not necessarily all been spent. However, it is by far the largest national contribution to Sierra Leone and much of it is being used to fund the demobilisation and reintegration programme and to provide general economic assistance to build up the capacity of the Government of Sierra Leone.
Specifically, quite a significant sum is also going into the development of the training of an army for the Government of Sierra Leone. Considerable progress has been made, but we must remember that we are starting from almost zero and dealing with a Government who have faced serious rebel challenges on several occasions and who had absolutely no army left of their own. Against that background, we are making good progress and I believe that we were on target to meet our original aim of providing the Government with an army to replace the United Nations force when it withdrew.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): It is common ground on both sides of the House that a force should be sent to protect British citizens. However, how would the Foreign Secretary reconcile a medium or longer-term commitment in any wider capacity whatever with the admission made by the Secretary of State for Defence only a few weeks ago that British forces are already significantly overstretched?
Mr. Cook: There is no question of a long-term commitment by the troops that have been sent. On overstretch, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the issue exercises both the House and the Government. At the height of the Kosovo involvement, we had a 47 per cent. overstretch, but I am pleased to tell the House that that is now reduced to 27 per cent., which is exactly the degree of overstretch that we inherited from the previous Government.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. First, during Culture, Media and Sport questions, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) mentioned me in his question to the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman attempted to be mischievous and to mislead the House, and he did not forewarn me that he was going to mention me. It was the second time in three weeks that he had done that, and I ask whether that was in order.