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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord did not mean anything untoward. I know that he has the greatest respect for our troops and I am sure that, like us, he understands that they are doing an important job. They are training and keeping fit, but they are also providing for any additional flexibility that may be needed should the occasion arise. Of course, we hope that that does not happen, but the flexibility is available on advice.
Perhaps I can assure the noble Lord that we will only fight in self-defence; that is, if we are attacked. I hope that the rules of engagement are absolutely clear to your Lordships. Of course, there are a lot of troops in place. Some noble Lords remarked on that on Friday. When one is securing the airport, it is necessary not only to have troops in the airport, but also to secure the access and egress of the airport and to secure communications between the airport and Freetown, which, as I explained, is difficult because of the geography of Sierra Leone. But I thank the noble Lord for his support.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, did the noble Baroness see the statement made by Solomon Berewa, the Attorney-General of Sierra Leone that, according to documents found in Foday Sankoh's house, he himself took 442 carats of diamonds between August 1999 and January 2000 worth around £150,000? Is not that the key to the situation? The RUF still controls the diamond-producing areas and as long as it derives revenue from that source it will continue to import arms illicitly from places like Burkina Faso, stemming from eastern Europe. We must deal with that question if Sierra Leone is ever to have permanent peace.
Will the noble Baroness therefore answer my noble friend's question in relation to the terms of reference of the UN mission? Is it there to enforce the peace, as it has started doing already? If so, will it assist the Sierra Leonean armed forces to recapture the diamond-producing areas and thus cut off the sources of revenue from which Foday Sankoh continues this war? Will the
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I would prefer to write to the noble Lord on the question of heavy lift. I do not feel able to tell your Lordships what heavy lift is available because I am not sure how much of our operational hand that will expose. I hope to be able to give the noble Lord details and put a copy of my letter into your Lordships' Library. But the situation being what it is, I prefer to take advice about any security implications that may arise on that question.
I agree with the fundamental premise of the noble Lord. We have in the past had exchanges on Sierra Leone where the noble Lord centred his remarks on what happened in the diamond trade. I agree that the whole issue of diamonds has fuelled this appalling conflict for many years. I am sure it is the issue of diamonds that led to the disgraceful, rapacious greed demonstrated by certain members of the RUF in particular but no doubt others as well.
To turn to the specific question, the UN troops are present to provide for the implementation of the Lome agreement, which provides for the permanent cessation of hostilities, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of all ex-combatants. As part of that, the creation of democratically accountable armed forces to protect the country is necessary. Of course, when trying to reintegrate members of the armed forces into society, we have to look at the ways in which that can be done, and that will mean diverting people's attention away from the disgraceful trade we have seen in diamonds to things which benefit the country as a whole. But that is a long process.
The noble Lord and I have been exchanging comments over these issues for some two and a half years or so. But that does not detract from the wisdom of what he said; namely, that some solution to the problem has to be found. I believe that it is well understood in the United Nations that the diamond situation--I hesitate to use the word "trade" because that is a respectable word--and the disgraceful intercourse that exists in that respect must be addressed so as to bring peace to that unhappy country.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on her strong presentation of the UK role. However, perhaps I may ask her a question about the evacuation process which, in general, has been carried out with exemplary speed by
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I can say, unequivocally, to my noble friend that I, too, heard that claim made on a radio broadcast this morning and was appalled by it. Naturally, I have requested information about the validity of that claim from my colleagues in the Foreign Office. I am assured that there was no discrimination of any kind during the evacuation. I believe that; I believe that there was no discrimination of any kind. Some 442 people have so far been safely evacuated to Dakar by official means--that is to say, the means provided by British troops. But, of course, other people may have evacuated under their own steam and may have travelled by civilian means.
Our responsibility was to evacuate people for whom we have the consular responsibility--not just British people, but others as well--to a place of safety. Once in Dakar, it was for evacuees to make their own onward travel arrangements. Many did so and arrived in the UK soon after reaching Dakar, but many evacuees had little or no money. Those people were provided with hotel accommodation, while arrangements were made by our consular staff in Dakar for their onward travel to the United Kingdom. Foreign Office staff in Paris and London met those who were evacuated on Thursday and Friday. I can give my noble friend the assurance that there is no question whatever of any racial discrimination over evacuation.
Lord Blaker: My Lords, I have had the strong impression in recent days that there are more reports than there used to be about the activities of the SAS, its equipment and even its intentions. This seems to me to be undesirable. Can the Minister assure us that there has been no change of policy as regards the release of information on that sort of subject?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I can. I, too, have been rather disturbed by some of these reports. I was most disturbed to hear a reference to special forces from the noble Lord's right honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State on a radio programme this morning. I thought that that was an astonishing reference for a responsible member of the Opposition to make. I should tell the noble Lord that such reports are not "reports" in the accepted sense of being official reports from the MoD, the Foreign Office, or anywhere else. There is a great deal of speculation about what is happening. In line with our predecessor administrations--and, I hope, our successor administrations--we do not comment on the activities of special forces.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I believe that my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath is quite right. Recent events have clearly demonstrated the need for properly trained, effective and democratically accountable armed forces in Sierra Leone. We still have plans to send a UK military advisory and training team to the country, whose remit will be to deliver what the armed forces of Sierra Leone need to ensure a lasting peace. As I reported when repeating the Statement and as was announced in April of this year, we remain committed to that aim. But the team's arrival in Sierra Leone is likely to be delayed if the security situation is deemed to be too volatile. I am sure that my noble friend will not be surprised--indeed, I hope that he is reassured to know--that no firm decisions have been taken on when the bulk of those personnel will arrive in Sierra Leone.
I agree with my noble friend. All those who wish Sierra Leone well ought to be thinking about ways in which they can contribute to the civil well-being of the country. We must ensure that the armed forces, many of whom will have to be deployed in different ways in the future, are properly trained so as to secure a peaceful and democratic society in that country for the future.
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