Two British-based businessmen, named by the UN as notorious for supplying arms to Africa's most bloody war zones, have sought advice from British diplomats to help clear their names, The Observer can reveal.
The disclosure will be highly embarrassing for the Government's so-called ethical foreign policy and has prompted calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the nature of repeated contacts between the British Government and former soldier Andrew Smith and businessman John Bredenkamp over the past two years.
The Observer has established that British High Commission staff in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, have held numerous meetings with Smith and Bredenkamp, who is not a British citizen. Bredenkamp asked for advice on how to rebuff allegations of being an arms dealer at a meeting in Harare in March. Smith has also made 'representations' to diplomats over similar allegations.
Both men have been recently exposed in The Observer for their role in supplying weapons and supplies to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both were also 'named and shamed' in a United Nations report into the illegal looting of minerals and resources from the country.
Bredenkamp, who lives in Berkshire, has been barred from entering the US, and Smith, a former captain of the Royal Engineers, faces UN claims that one of his companies was involved in mercenary-style operations in the eastern region of Congo.
Bredenkamp held two face-to-face meetings with British High Commission staff in Harare. The first was on 14 November last year and the second on 11 March this year. British officials have declined to comment on what was discussed. However, The Observer has established that at the second meeting Bredenkamp was seeking advice on how best to clear his name of some of the charges of arms dealing made against him by British MP Paul Farrelly during debates in the House of Commons.
Smith has also held several meetings with British diplomats in Harare over the past two years, including an October 2001 meeting with the defence attaché. He too has sought advice from diplomats on how to respond to the UN allegations.
Smith has also met British officials in London and in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, where he runs a private airline company.
The revelations have prompted outrage among anti-arms trade groups and prompted calls for an inquiry into why Britain is holding regular meetings at its embassies with arms traffickers. 'It beggars belief that government officials were willing to talk to people involved in the activities that the UN has accused them of,' said a spokesman for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram called for an investigation into the circumstances of the meetings.
MPs have also condemned the news. 'I find it extraordinary that British commission officials have been meeting two businessmen of highly questionable background. One of them is not even a British citizen,' said Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, who has asked a series of parliamentary questions on the subject. Lamb has also highlighted links between Bredenkamp and BAE.