UN orders all Britons and Americans out of Iraq

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE UNITED Nations revealed last night that it has ordered all American and British nationals working for it in Iraq to leave the country as soon as possible because of fears for their safety.

The move further illustrates the depth of distrust between the UN and the leadership in Baghdad following the bombing of Iraq by the US and Britain inDecember and the continuing pounding of Iraqi defence sites in the northern and southern "no-fly" zones.

Fred Eckhard, UN spokesman, said the decision had been taken yesterday following "specific threats" to nationals of the two countries working for the UN's humanitarian programme in Iraq. He said that at least two US citizens were immediately involved. While there are about 10 British UN officials assigned to the programme, all of them were already outside Iraq last night on leave, an official said.

The UN's decision, taken by Benon Sevan, the chief of the humanitarian affairs division, stems from a letter sent by the Iraqi leadership to New York on 4 January saying that the safety of British and American officials working in the country could no longer be guaranteed.

Officially, the UN responded by telling Iraq that it had no right to dictate the composition of UN teams working there. The British Government quickly expressed alarm to the UN, however, and asked Mr Sevan to respond quickly to the letter.

Officials last night said that Mr Sevan, assisted by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, have attempted behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Baghdad to persuade it to withdraw the threat to the Britons and Americans that was implied in the letter and to guarantee that they would be protected.

Yesterday's decision signalled, however, that Iraq refused to bend.

There are other Britons working in the country for non-governmental organisations not formally linked to the UN. Most of those are in the northern Kurdish region, where Baghdad has limited control.

While the UN decision could be interpreted as a climbdown in the face of Iraqi belligerence, it is unlikely to be questioned by London or Washington. The final decision on the welfare of UN personnel, regardless of nationality, rests with Mr Sevan and the Secretary General.

Iraq, meanwhile, continues to refuse to allow the re-entry into its country of the weapons inspectors working for Unscom, the UN body charged with hunting down its weapons of mass destruction. Under UN resolutions, the Security Council cannot lift sanctions against Iraq until Unscom has certified that it is free of all such weapons.

"All United States and United Kingdom nationals working for the United Nations should leave the country," Mr Eckhard said making the announcement. Insisting that the final decision rested with Mr Sevan, he added: "The specific threats were to these two nationalities so it was the security co-ordinator's call."

US officials revealed meanwhile that more Iraqi defence installations have been destroyed by missiles from allied jets over the no-fly zones in the last few weeks than during all of the four-day Cruise missile bombardment of last December.

Iraq yesterday began moving some of its anti-aircraft systems out of the no-fly zones to central Iraq to protect them from attack.