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Boutros-Ghali steps back at UN

In an unexpected move that might help to break the deadlock in the efforts to appoint the next United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the incumbent, told the Security Council last night that he would "suspend his candidacy for the time being".

The manoeuvre opens the door for countries to begin submitting new names for the post, which must be filled by 31 December when Mr Boutros-Ghali's five-year term expires. By convention, Africa has the opportunity to propose candidates first to the council. Until last night, the Africans had been divided over whether to abandon Mr Boutros-Ghali and no new names have yet been formally put forward.

"The Secretary General is maintaining his candidacy for a second term," a UN spokeswoman last night insisted.

The Secretary General may be trying to preserve the record of the 14- to-1 vote that was taken on his position last month, when only the United States voted against him. Any future ballots would be likely to attract more negative votes against him, for instance from Britain.

By stopping short of withdrawing from the race entirely, Mr Boutros-Ghali is leaving open the possibility that his tenure could still be extended if the council failed to find a suitable successor and if the US could be persuaded to backtrack from its position. That is widely considered to be an extremely long shot, however, and the chances of him enduring beyond this month appear to be slim.

Although no alternative name has been officially submitted, sources said that Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Niger had all made informal approaches about candidates. From Ghana there is Kofi Annan, currently in charge of UN peacekeeping; from Ivory Coast Amara Essy, its Foreign Minister; and from Niger, Hamed al-Gabid, President of the Islamic Conference.