British firms pulling strings.

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As Britain proposes to increase its military presence in Sierra Leone to brigade strength (5,000 troops), a new report in the London-based Punch magazine has said "duplicitous dealings involving a tangle of British companies, suggest that Sierra Leone's civil war is really an ugly scramble for mineral wealth, with international mining conglomerates pulling all the strings, despite the pious words about Britain's 'ethical' foreign policy".

In September, Britain mounted a daring raid in Sierra Leone to rescue its soldiers taken hostage by the rebel West Side Boys who had only in June benefited from Britain's military largesse of weapons and other materiel. One British soldier and 25 rebels died in the raid.

But the Punch report, published in its 4-17 October issue, says: "Amid [the] breathless coverage of the [raid], complete with maps of West African swamps, one of the key facts about Sierra Leone was lost: namely, that the country is teeming with mercenaries. Many blame the country's woes on the ubiquitous presence of the mercenaries, who even now are working alongside the [British] Ministry of Defence, which is re-training and re-arming the Sierra Leone national army."

The report, written by Pete Sawyer who has just returned from Sierra Leone with a TV crew, continued: "Now new evidence seen by Punch suggests that, three years ago, business interest may have exacerbated the civil war in the relentless drive to control Sierra Leone's diamond resources, by providing support to both sides in the conflict."

The report names one British company and two associate companies (run from the same office in Chelsea, London) who were at the centre of two recent British parliamentary investigations. The boss of the parent company had told the parliamentary investigators that: "Everything that my company did, we did in good faith and we did believing that what we were doing, was in the best interests of President Kabbah and his government."

But documents seen by Punch show that while the parent company "was planning its operation to reinstate President Kabbah, two associate companies -- a commercial security company a mining outfit -- were providing weapons to the rebels.

"The...

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