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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the most recent reports indicate that around 150 hostages--perhaps, more suitably, I should call them "detainees"--have been released. However, I must stress to the noble Baroness that that figure is unconfirmed. She will have seen press reports, but I am afraid that we do not have any confirmation on that point.

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The noble Baroness also asked me a question about Mr Sankoh. I shall choose my words carefully. At this stage I can communicate nothing to the House as regards the whereabouts of Mr Sankoh. I hope that what I have said in relation to the rules of engagement has given some assurance to the noble Baroness. The strategy she outlined in her remarks is indeed the strategy that we have put in place. Furthermore, as regards her comments about the need for heavy lifting equipment, this issue is covered by the logistics element of the role Her Majesty's Government have undertaken. The noble Baroness is quite right here. When a mandate is being pursued on behalf of the United Nations, it behoves all countries that belong to the United Nations to do what they can to support such a mandate. The United Kingdom has willingly shouldered that burden.

Before I sit down, perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, on the point he made about General Sir Charles Guthrie. Last Friday I told the House that a visit to the region had been planned by the Chief of the Defence Staff some time ago. I think it would be unthinkable that the Chief of the Defence Staff should not go to the region and visit British troops engaged in operations. After all, he is their head of profession. Those troops would expect to see him and we are very pleased that he is there. Furthermore, we are glad to see that he is lifting the morale of the troops in the way that only Sir Charles can. I for one was delighted to learn that he was broadcasting from Sierra Leone over the weekend.

On the question of relations between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, I can assure noble Lords that there is in place a strong, good and worthwhile working relationship. I hope that the presence of my noble friend Lady Scotland on the Front Bench with me today demonstrates that.

5.5 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, can the noble Baroness--

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I believe that it is the turn of noble Lords on this side to speak.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, why?

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, we have heard the spokesman from this side, but we have not heard from the Back Benches.

Lord Bach: My Lords, perhaps we should first hear from my noble friend Lord Shore.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I wished only to offer my congratulations and encouragement to my noble friend. She has made an excellent Statement. We have done our duty to safeguard our fellow citizens and others, but there is a wider duty that we must perform. My noble friend has made that very clear.

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We cannot afford to allow the United Nations to be humiliated and rebuffed in the mission it has undertaken. If we need to commit more forces in order to safeguard the position of the United Nations, I for one would be prepared to support that.

However, I should like to make one point to my noble friend. I am not worried about our terms of engagement, but I am a little concerned about those of the forces of the United Nations. The entire situation has changed over recent weeks as regards the government of Sierra Leone, which previously were supposed to be a government of coalition and reconciliation. The second principal member has turned out once again to be an arch rebel and destabiliser. Frankly, I think that it would be most sensible if we could put out feelers for an early recall of the Security Council to see what other measures, both in its own interests and those of us all, might now be undertaken.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney for those remarks. On the question of United Nations troops, the fact is that troop numbers did not build up as quickly as had been originally anticipated. Now that the security of the airport is assured, we hope that it will be possible to see the pace of deployment accelerated, in particular by those countries which have already committed themselves; namely, India, Bangladesh and Jordan. As I indicated in the Statement, over the weekend we saw the deployment of some 230 Jordanese troops precisely because the United Kingdom had already taken steps to secure the airport.

As regards the position of the Security Council, this is of course a matter in which the UN will take the lead. It is the responsibility of the UN to ensure that this matter is kept under constant review. I am happy to say once again to noble Lords that the Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, has expressed his great pleasure as regards the United Kingdom role and deployment in Sierra Leone.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, perhaps I may put a question to the noble Baroness. The Statement announces the intention to "cover the withdrawal" and to "support the United Nations". Those two declarations are in fact mutually exclusive. We have just heard a plea from the noble Lord, Lord Shore, for imperial rule, more or less. The idea of Mr Cook as Secretary of State for India is something that would amuse me if it were not so sad.

Can the Minister explain what would happen if we were to allow Mr Sankoh, who was forced back into power by ourselves--that was surely the equivalent of making Dr Shipman Minister of Health or Kenneth Noye Chancellor of the Exchequer--back into power again? Forcing him back into power would be a great mistake. What Sandline did to keep the old democratic government in proper order went by the board. Everything collapsed and Sankoh came back.

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Please can we have a definition of the Government's aims? Do they intend to go in to get British people out or do they aim a reimposition of an element of the imperialism so eloquently advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Shore?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Earl has stated that it is mutually exclusive to hold to the twin aims of evacuating British and other nationals for whom we have responsibility and supporting the United Nations. I simply do not know how the noble Earl has come to draw that conclusion. The fact is that we needed to secure the airport in order to facilitate the egress of our citizens and others for whom we had responsibility. Having secured the airport, it would be unthinkable not to keep it secure for the access necessary to the UN. Those two seem to me to be mutually supportive objectives and aims, and no matter how much the noble Earl may shake his head and assert the contrary, I am afraid that in logic, for once, the noble Earl is wrong.

To turn to the question in relation to imperial rule, as we all know, the noble Earl has an excellent turn of phrase and can often be extremely amusing. But this is not a joke; it is a serious issue. It is not a question of the return of imperial rule; it is a question of doing what we can in the limited context I described of upholding the United Nation's mandate. We are a responsible member of the United Nations and are doing what we can in the circumstances.

The noble Earl will know that Mr Sankoh's appointment was part of the Lome agreement; it was a part into which Mr Sankoh entered. Of course it is outrageous and appalling that he did not uphold the agreement and has effectively plunged the country back into civil war. But the noble Earl asks me to go on and speculate what may happen in various eventualities if Mr Sankoh were to do various things. It cannot be right for us to discuss such eventualities and I repeat what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. This is not a play in which we have a script and know to what end we are all going. This is military action on the ground. People's lives are at stake and I for one will not do anything that speculates in such a way that makes it less effective in operational terms to secure the safe return of all our British troops.

Viscount Slim: My Lords, I fully support the stance that both the noble Baroness and her right honourable friend the Secretary of State have taken over the rules of engagement; let the other side find out first.

However, I take slight issue with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham--I know he did not mean them--in relation to the Royal Marines on board HMS "Ocean". They will not be causing any problems; they will be training, keeping fit and getting as much sleep as possible because, if they are landed, they will get no sleep. They will also be planning for eventualities that may come. I say that because, when we read Hansard tomorrow, the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, may feel that his remarks make it appear as though matters of little consequence are happening on

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board that vessel. But it is right, when we do not know the end, to be flexible and to prepare for any eventualities that may come.

To repeat something I said on Friday, involvement in a city or a town eats up soldiers. Fighting in built-up areas and in streets requires plenty of reinforcements. We hope it does not come to that. But the Statement is about right for what is happening in Sierra Leone today.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those wise words. Like him, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, did not mean to imply anything that he will regret when he reads Hansard tomorrow in relation to the Royal Marines.

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