UN nuclear watchdog challenges Britain to reveal Niger intelligence

The United Nations nuclear watchdog yesterday challenged the Government to share intelligence which it used to accuse Saddam Hussein of trying to buy uranium from two African countries for a nuclear bomb.

Lord Butler of Brockwell said the Government's claims were "well-founded," after admitting "significant controversy" surrounded the reliability of government statements about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium ore.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) determined in March 2003 that documents which allegedly "proved" an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from Niger were forgeries. But the British government, the first to put the claims into the public domain in the September 2002 dossier, continued to insist it had separate sources which confirmed its statement.

Lord Butler's report revealed the accusations against Iraq concerned not only Niger, but the war-ravaged, mineral-rich country of the Democratic Republic of Congo. An IAEA spokesman said that the Vienna-based body responsible for monitoring Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions on nuclear issues, had not been informed of the specific intelligence on the two countries. A spokesman, Mark Gwozdecky, said: "We did not see any indication of any violation, but we remain open to reopening the investigation if the information is made available to us."

Governments are bound by UN resolutions to submit to the IAEA any information concerning illegal Iraqi weapons. Lord Butler said Britain had "further intelligence from additional sources" in 2002 that Iraqi officials visited Niger in early 1999 to buy uranium ore. "There was disagreement as to whether a sale had been agreed and uranium shipped," he added.

So far as Democratic Republic of Congo is concerned, "there was further and separate intelligence that in 1999 the Iraqi regime had also made inquiries about the purchase of uranium ore in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this case, there was some evidence that by 2002 an agreement for a sale had been reached," Lord Butler said. "We conclude that, on the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the government's dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded."

He said the forged documents were not available to the British government at the time, and they did not undermine the Government's case.

IAEA officials have expressed frustration that Lord Butler's team appeared more willing to share information with the press than with the UN body charged with investigating Iraq's nuclear programme.