Foreign ministers seek a solution in Geneva

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The Independent Online
Foreign ministers from Britain, France, Russia and the US met in Geneva last night to discuss a Russian proposal to resolve the crisis over Iraq's expulsion of American UN weapons inspectors and avert US military action.

Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Foreign minister, said he expected "a lot" to come out of the meeting after talks with Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister on Tuesday. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, cut short a visit to India to attend the talks.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, were scheduled to hold talks before the meeting at the UN European headquarters. Ms Albright's spokesman, James Rubin, had said yesterday that it would not be clear if the decision to hold the meeting meant an agreement was near until "we arrive in Geneva and we have a chance to study what Foreign Minister Primakov brought with him." But diplomatic sources said it was likely that a significant degree of consultation would have already taken place before the meeting.

President Bill Clinton had threatened military action against Iraq, announcing earlier this week that he was sending additional combat aircraft, including six B-52 bombers, to the Gulf. But the US has failed to gain international support for military action and is under pressure to find a diplomatic solution.

The military action was in response to the expulsion of six American members of the UN weapons-inspection team last week, which in effect suspended the UN Special Commission on weapons inspection (Unscom), set up after the end of the Gulf war in 1991. Russia accepts Iraq acted unlawfully in restricting the UN weapons inspectors' access, but opposes military action, saying that Iraq should be given incentives in return for implementing UN resolutions. On Monday, the US said Iraq could be allowed to increase its oil sales to buy humanitarian goods. Iraq's UN ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, dismissed this as a "non-starter" because it did not address Iraq's aim of having sanctions lifted entirely. - Harriet Martin, Geneva

Tony Blair said in London last night that it was "absolutely essential" that President Saddam must back down, Reuters reports.

"We will of course seek a diplomatic solution to it but he has to back down on it. Because if he doesn't back down on it, we will simply face this problem, perhaps in a different and far worse form in a few years time." Britain yesterday gave the go-ahead for six RAF Harrier jump jets to join an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. "It is a sensible precautionary measure which will help keep all our options open," Defence Secretary George Robertson said.