HC Deb 08 May 2000 vol 349 cc518-29 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 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 Lomé peace accord has broken down. Sadly, most of the Revolutionary United Front has never accepted that peace, 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?

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 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 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 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 Lomé 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 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.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the city of Hull is twinned with Freetown? Over the past few decades, a close and continuing relationship has developed, and we have help to train local government personnel and others. The events that have unfolded over the past few weeks have caused much shock and horror, and aroused fears that terrible scenes of butchery might be seen again in Sierra Leone.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that British nationals and others for whom the Government have a responsibility will be protected and helped, and that a similar degree of protection will be extended to those citizens of Sierra Leone and of Freetown who have co-operated happily with the NGOs and others? Will he ensure that their co-operation will not cause them to be singled out as victims if the RUF should turn out to be successful?

Finally, I thank my right hon. Friend for his robust statement, and the robust riposte that he gave to the speech of the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), which was one of the most disgraceful things that I have heard in the House for a long time.

Mr. Cook

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point about the hopes of the people of Sierra Leone, and those in Britain who are concerned about their welfare, being dashed. What has happened in the past week has been particularly cruel, given the enormous hope that was invested in the peace agreement a year ago. I remember, just about a year ago, speaking personally with President Kabbah after he had toured the country selling the details of the peace agreement. He told me of the joy, the elation and the relief of the people he addressed at the prospect of peace and an end to violence and repression by the RUF. We must not let that hope die—we must make sure that we restore the peace that was promised a year ago. We will do all we can to ensure that that peace is rebuilt and that the people of Sierra Leone have the right to enjoy the same stability and peace as any of us. However, I must be candid and honest about this—I cannot offer them the military protection that we are currently providing to secure the evacuation of our own nationals.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Given the litany of the thousands of awful murders and mutilations that the Foreign Secretary referred to, does he accept that his foreign policy on Sierra Leone over the past three years has not been a success? Does he remember the Prime Minister's official spokesman saying two years ago that it did not really matter because the good guys won? Does he regret that? Does he regret not listening some two and a half years ago to the advice of Peter Penfold, when high commissioner? He was then supporting President Kabbah, who wished to stage a coup—a counter coup—which might not have led to the terrible murders that we have seen in the past three years as a result?

Mr. Cook

The whole House will appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has uncorked the ancient vinegar. I think it regrettable that there is any Member of the House who cannot rise to the gravity of the situation faced by 500 British nationals and those UN forces engaged in the field.

The hon. Gentleman referred to President Kabbah staging a coup—rather curious, considering that he was elected by the people of Sierra Leone.

Mr. Robathan

Counter coup.

Mr. Cook

I think that "counter" came after the hon. Gentleman originally said that it was a coup. I presume that the hon. Gentleman was making a reference to Sandline. The liberation of Sierra Leone that occurred in 1998 had nothing whatever to do with Sandline, and everything to do with Nigerian troops, which took a large number of casualties in the process. The truth is that, in the present situation, mercenaries would be nothing but a menace.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a way should be found for the wider international community, whether that be Commonwealth nations, inside or outside Africa, to assist further? Britain is doing a most commendable job in attempting to protect British nationals, but there is a much wider task to be done. Does he also agree that there must be scope for the international community to address the politics of diamonds, because the diamond trade has left a scar on Africa over the decades and the centuries?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes two important points. If we are to contain the conflicts of Africa, it is important that Africa develops professionalism and competence in peacekeeping. I am pleased that Britain is playing an important role in this, given the number of military advisory training teams that we have in Africa, including a large one in Ghana, which I visited while calling upon President Rawlings. I am grateful to Ghana for its support in providing a centre for excellence in peacekeeping training.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about diamonds. It is a great tragedy that the conflicts in Sierra Leone, and also in the Congo and Angola, have been fuelled by the attempts of various armed groups to obtain control of the diamonds fields. It is extremely difficult to control the flow of diamonds from such African countries, which have large borders and difficult terrain. However, the trade in uncut diamonds is relatively modest and concentrated, and it should not be beyond the wit of the international community to find a better way of regulating it.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The Sierra Leonean community in this country will be grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for his welcome support for the United Nations. Does he envisage taking any action, perhaps in New York, to ensure that the UN is strengthened in whatever ways it needs to see through its mission? In the context of the Commonwealth, can he ensure that the guarantor powers are supported in trying to maintain the democratic regime, and that the Sankoh regime will be undermined and dealt with? Lastly, will he undertake that Sierra Leoneans who are his consular responsibility and are in the queue to come to the UK will be dealt with as quickly and humanely as possible, and that there is no repetition of occurrences in which people seeking properly to join family in the UK have had to leave Sierra Leone and go to other countries to wait in a long queue before they could be processed?

Mr. Cook

First, I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's constituency interest. A large community of people from Sierra Leone is resident in Britain, and those people will closely watch what the Government do to assist in their home country.

In relation to the UN in New York, I have already approached Kofi Annan to discuss how we can help with the present operation. The immediate priority is to try to provide support and strengthening for the current operation to overcome the crisis. Questions may remain to be asked about the mandate and the terms of operation for the future, but the immediate priority must be to ensure that the operation has adequate strength.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall deal with all British nationals and passport holders without distinction or discrimination, and shall seek to ensure that they are all evacuated safely.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I believe that most Members will applaud the Government's efforts in committing British forces. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on avoiding reciprocation of pathetic political point scoring. We ought to send out a message of consensus.

If a message is to be given to the butchers, the sending of the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment, HMS Ocean and an aircraft carrier with aircraft is a powerful one, and I hope that that will be appreciated. I shall enter into negotiations with the Secretary of State for Defence to invite him or the Minister of State to discuss deployment with the Select Committee on Defence.

Finally, illicit diamonds are normally associated with mercenaries. How high up the agenda is legislation or a White Paper on the exercise of a degree of control on that rather squalid, sordid industry?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the dignity of his contribution. He is right to remind us all that this is a grave matter on which we should respond as a nation, not as partisans.

We promised a Green Paper on mercenaries in response to the Select Committee's report on Sierra Leone last year, and work is well developed. I hope that we may take it forward. I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of diamonds.

My hon. Friend made an observation about hearing from a Minister at the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence heard that observation, and I should not dream of interfering in those negotiations.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

In view of the fact that the neighbouring country of Liberia supports the RUF and Mr. Sankoh, what approach has the Foreign Secretary made to the leadership in Liberia for assistance in trying to bring about the resumption of a peaceful solution to the problems facing Sierra Leone?

Secondly, on diamonds, how far has the Foreign Office gone in its analysis of the situation, and in the actions that it tried to take through the UN and commercial trading operations—notably in Brussels—to contain the traffic, which would enable us to undermine the finance of the appalling rebels?

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. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Obviously, the Unionists support the statement made by the Secretary of State. From that statement and from the lunch-time news, it is clear that the situation could rapidly decline. However, the right hon. Gentleman said that HMS Ocean and the support vessels could not reach the area for another week. How quickly could the spearhead battalion move from Dakar to Freetown international airport?

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 for Defence satisfied that we have sufficient troops for that purpose, should they meet resistance when they get there?

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.