Iraq accused of germ warfare plot

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The United Nations Security Council will hear evidence today that Iraq may be developing biological weapons, almost eliminating any chance of an early lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on the country after the Gulf war.

Details of missing quantities of materials that might be used to grow bacteria and viruses for germ warfare are contained in a report on Iraqi compliance with post-Gulf war UN resolutions on dismantling weapons of mass destruction.

The report, to be presented to the Council in New York tonight, compiled by the UN's inspector in Iraq, Rolf Ekeus, will be a blow to Baghdad andwill also disappoint Russia and France, which have leaned towards ending the sanctions.

Mr Ekeus's findings will be welcomed by the United States, which has been pushing for the measures against Baghdad to be maintained. In a press conference last week with the Prime Minister, John Major, President Bill Clinton suggested that Iraq may be making progress towards rebuilding its weapons programmes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in Vienna, has indicated it will respond fast to reports that Baghdad has resumed its nuclear weapons programme without the UN's knowledge.

Mr Ekeus' report suggests Western concern should be limited to the biological issue. In other fields, including the possible development of missile and nuclear programmes, his report concludes that Iraq has co-operated with the UN.

Although Mr Ekeus sounded the alarm about Iraq's germ warfare ambitions last year, this report offers more detail of the potential violations. It indicates that in 1988, Iraq imported 39 tons of "growth media", for growing the bacteria, of which only 22 tons have been acounted for by Baghdad.

Mr Ekeus dismisses Iraqi claims that the material was purchased for medical purposes. His report says: "The importation of media by types, quantities and packaging is grossly out of proportion to Iraq's stated requirements for hospital use.

"With Iraq's failure to account for the use of these items and materials for legitimate purposes, the only conclusion ... is that there is a high risk that they had been purchased for a proscribed purpose - acquisition of biological warfare agents".

Britain and the US are pressing for the passage of a UN resolution to allow Iraq to export $4bn (£2.5bn) of oil over a limited period, to help it purchase medicines and humanitarian supplies. Part of the proceeds would go to Kuwait as war reparations, and to the UN, to help cover monitoring costs. Iraq has dismissed the plan as a violation of its sovereignty.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi official, Nouri Najim al-Marsoumi, under-secretary of the Culture and Information Ministry, warned that if the Council did not end the sanctions, Iraq would take its own actions. He said: "American naughtiness aims at destroying everything which is alive and beautiful in this dear country".

n Baghdad - A Polish diplomat and a US television reporter visited two American prisoners in Iraq's maximum security prison and said they were being held in difficult conditions, but were well AP reports.

The two prisoners, David Daliberti, 41, and William Barloon, 39, were sentenced on 25 March to eight-year terms, for illegally crossing into Iraq.