Britain has defended its policy on arms sales to Africa. The issue has arisen as Prime Minister Tony Blair prepares to leave on a tour of western Africa.

Officials say Prime Minister Blair is putting the final touches on his plans to lead a diplomatic mission to western Africa. His itinerary has been kept secret, but media reports say Mr. Blair will visit Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and possibly Sierra Leone this week.

Mr. Blair has made Africa a foreign affairs priority of his second term. Britain is pushing the other seven leading industrial powers to come up with an action plan for African development by June.

But as Mr. Blair champions the cause of combating disease, poverty and war in Africa, his government also faces criticism over its arms sales policy to the continent.

A group called the Campaign Against Arms Trade forecasts that annual British arms sales to Africa will exceed $200 million by next year.

Britain's under-secretary for Africa, Valerie Amos, said the Blair government has no qualms about supporting Africa's defense. "We have to recognize that countries have legitimate defense needs," she said, "and where those countries have legitimate defense needs, then there is going to be a commercial opportunity."

She told a London news conference that Britain is more concerned about the illegal trade in small arms to guerrilla groups, because it foments much of the violence in Africa.

Ms. Amos also expressed concern about the latest tribal clashes in Nigeria. "Nigeria is one of those countries where even over the past year there have been a whole number of uprisings, for example, in different parts of the country," she said. "It is a country that has between 200 and 400 different tribal groups, so there is a great deal of tension."

She said there is hope that a Nigerian government seminar in Lagos this week on the tribal conflicts will point the way to ending the violence.

And on Zimbabwe, Ms. Amos said she is encouraged that African leaders have begun to speak out against political violence and repression under President Robert Mugabe.