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Russia demands UN role in weapons checks

The demand came as a scientist who claims to have been in charge of the Iraq regime's chemical weapons programme told the US military that Baghdad destroyed its chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment days before the war.

The Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Yakovenko, said chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei must return to Iraq and report as soon as possible.

"It is very simple. To lift sanctions, the security council resolutions must be fulfilled by confirmation that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And, according to the UN resolutions, only Blix and El Baradei can give us this."

Mr Blix is expected to demand a role for his team at a meeting of the security council this week.

Mr Yakovenko added that Russia was not opposed to lifting sanctions, but wanted to see "international law" adhered to.

The Russian call was echoed by Britain's Foreign Office minister, Mike O'Brien: "We need to have some element of independent verification," he said yesterday.

"The UN inspectors are clearly a possibility for doing that. We are talking to the Americans and other allies, and indeed, the UN, about how verification can be carried out. At the moment we are ready to operate under Nato procedures and we will send samples of material that we find to laboratories that will be able to properly analyse it under independent verification techniques."

The renewed diplomatic focus on Iraq's weapons coincided with a report in yesterday's New York Times that an Iraqi scientist led Members of MET Alpha, the mobile exploitation team set up to hunt for illegal weapons of mass destruction, to material which could be used to manufacture illegal weapons.

The scientist also allegedly told American weapons experts that from the mid-1990s Iraq had sent illegal weapons and technology to Syria and had been cooperating with al-Qaida.

If true, the allegations would mark a breakthrough for the coalition forces who have yet to find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the original pretext for waging war on Iraq.

Until now the MET's sensitive mobile laboratories, able to analyse chemical and germ samples quickly, have been kept at a safe distance for fear of being damaged in fighting.

"What they have discovered could prove to be of incalculable value," Major General David Petraeus, commander of the army's 101st Airborne Division, told the New York Times.

US central command refused to confirm the report and the White House declined to comment. The report was withheld for three days by military censors who forbade the New York Times to publish some of the details about the chemicals or interview the scientist in question.

Military officials refused to identify the scientist. They said he told them that several months before the war he saw Iraqi officials bury chemical precursors for weapons and other sensitive material to conceal and protect them for future use.

Four days before President George Bush gave Saddam an ultimatum in March, the scientist said, Iraqi officials set fire to a warehouse where biological weapons research was conducted.

The man told officials that the Iraqi weapons programme was so compartmentalised, only he had firsthand information about the chemical weapons in the area in which he worked.

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