HL Deb 04 October 2000 vol 616 cc1514-6

2.52 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

What orders have been given to the commander of British forces in Sierra Leone on how to deal with mercenaries flying a helicopter gunship on behaft of the Government of Sierra Leone.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, UK personnel in Sierra Leone liaise with those employed by the Government of Sierra Leone to pilot their helicopters. This is essential, not least to ensure that UK forces are not mistakenly attacked and to avoid the risk of collision between UK and Government of Sierra Leone helicopters. In addition, a British officer is advising the Government of Sierra Leone on the establishment of an air wing. He advises on air transport, reconnaissance and offensive capability requirements.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the mercenary force, using a helicopter gunship, bombarded civilian areas in Makeni, Lunsar and Kambia, killing many civilians? Does she feel it is appropriate for a British officer to advise a force engaged in committing war crimes? Also, does she appreciate that there have been numerous resolutions of the UN General Assembly condemning the use of mercenaries in internal armed conflicts? The UN rapporteur on the use of mercenaries reaffirmed that there is an absolute prohibition on the employment of those people. Will not the Government therefore persuade President Kabbah to dismiss the mercenaries and to get on with the job of training his own forces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's anxieties. He has an extraordinarily good record in pursuing these issues in Sierra Leone which I know cause him a good deal of concern. But we must look at the definition of "mercenary" in the first instance. The noble Lord will know that there is no universally accepted definition of what amounts to a mercenary. As regards the reports that have been received concerning the activities of the helicopter gunship, they are unconfirmed.

If the noble Lord has matters that he wishes to discuss in relation to specific incidents, I shall be happy to talk to him about that in private. However, in doing that I must stress that British troops are on the ground at the moment in Sierra Leone and are the subject of hostile activity. It is less than one month since the British soldier was killed. Therefore in discussing this matter I can say nothing in your Lordships' House that puts into the public arena information which may be of use to our potential enemies. I am sure the noble Lord understands that and I therefore make the offer to discuss these matters with him privately if he would find that useful.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, is not the noble Lord's Question another reason why we should have a full debate or a Statement to this House on Sierra Leone? I asked the Minister for a debate about a month ago and confirmed the request in a conversation with her officials last week. I recognise what the noble Baroness says in relation to operational confidentiality. But are not the forces in Sierra Leone largely dependent on mercenaries—if that is the correct word—for the very efficient air traffic control in Sierra Leone?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can confirm the noble Lord's point. I apologised to him in private, and I do so again in your Lordships' House, because I was not aware of the detailed contents of a letter that arrived when I was away. So the noble Lord is quite right. But so is the answer I gave him on Monday. These matters can be discussed through the usual channels if the noble Lord wishes to press a point over the debate.

In answer to whether or not the point of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, strengthens the argument here, as he probably already knows, the Government are committed to publishing a Green Paper on mercenary activity by November 2000 as the basis for consultation. I should have thought that that would be an ideal vehicle for further discussion, whether that is in your Lordships' House formally or by other means.

I am not sure whether the noble Lord is right in suggesting that the Government of Sierra Leone are dependent on mercenaries for air traffic control. There is a narrow delta of activity in Sierra Leone between Lungi airport and Freetown. That is where the activity is concentrated and it is through the proper liaison I described to your Lordships that collisions, as well as unnecessary attacks, are avoided.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I agree with the Minister that nothing should be said or done that would bring our troops into danger in Sierra Leone and I join him in congratulating our forces on the excellent job they are doing in training the new Sierre Leone army. But would he agree that the casualties and deaths which are being caused by the mercenaries' helicopter gunship are far away from any scene of operation in which British troops are engaged, particularly in Makeni, where civilians were killed in the lower part in the central market? If I provide the noble Baroness with details of the casualties, including the names of the persons who were killed, which have been reported by the Centre for Democracy and Development in Freetown and also by ABC Television in Australia, will she undertake to look into them and take the matter up with President Kabbah?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I said, I am aware of the press reports. However, they are unconfirmed by the sources that we would normally expect to confirm such reports. I am happy to receive any information that the noble Lord has and to put that information before other Ministers. If it is deemed necessary to take these matters further, I am sure the appropriate action will be taken. But I hope the noble Lord will let me be a party to the information which he believes he has on these matters.