London, 5 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A political row has broken out in Britain following allegations that a London-based mercenary group shipped a consignment of Bulgarian weapons to help overthrow a military junta in west Africa.
A criminal investigation has been launched to determine whether the shipment of Bulgarian weapons breached a U.N. arms embargo imposed last year after the military junta in the former British colony of Sierra Leone seized power in a coup.
Media reports say the 30 tones of Bulgarian small arms and ammunition were flown out of Sofia to west Africa in February. The arms shipment was said to be worth some $10 million.
The reports say the Bulgarian weapons were sold to local guerrilla forces in Sierra Leone by the London-based "military consultants", Sandline International, one of a number of western mercenary organizations that have sprung up post-Cold War.
Sandline has admitted supplying the Bulgarian weapons but claims it acted with the approval of the British government, something categorically denied by Foreign Office officials.
The row is a potential embarrassment for Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who said when he took office that he would pursue an ethical foreign policy. In particular, he said he would support the U.N. which banned the supply of arms to Sierra Leone last October.
The affair has focused attention on one of the world's most barbaric conflicts which is being waged in the jungles of Sierra Leone, a tiny state of four million people northwest of Nigeria.
The U.N. imposed the arms embargo after a military junta headed by Major Johnny Koroma overthrew the elected civilian government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in May last year.
Subsequently, Nigerian-led peacekeeping troops returned Kabbah to power two months ago with the help of some 40,000 local guerrillas equipped with the Bulgarian weapons.
The British government had made no secret of its wish to see the restoration of Sierra Leone's elected president. Now, Sandline has called on the government to give a full account of what it alleges to be its involvement in the operation to restore the ousted president.
The Guardian newspaper reports that Sandline is one of several British security companies which have burgeoned since the end of the Cold War and apartheid in South Africa as surplus soldiers hire themselves out to governments engaged in internal conflicts.
The company is run by Lieut.-Colonel Tim Spicer, a former British army officer who served in the Gulf and the Falklands War.
Spicer was the focus of international publicity last year when he was hired by the government of Papua New Guinea to put down a rebellion on secessionist Bougainville island. The deal, reportedly worth more than 30 million dollars, went awry when he was detained, handcuffed and flown out of the Pacific country at gun point.
It is not known if Spicer personally visited Bulgaria to arrange the weapons shipment to the Sierra Leone forces, or the nature of Sandline's contacts -- if any -- with enterprises in Bulgaria.
New light on the affair may come after British officials question the British envoy to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, about allegations that he colluded with the mercenaries and may even have asked for their assistance.