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Iraq rejects UN olive branch

REJECTING an olive branch from the United Nations that could have staved off the allied plans to occupy Iraq's airspace south of the 32nd parallel, Baghdad refused yesterday to sign a humanitarian agreement with the UN. Jan Eliasson, a Swedish senior UN envoy, suffered the double indignity of having his proposals summarily turned down by Baghdad and of being in the country while one of his countrymen, on UN guard duty, was shot and severely wounded.

Mr Eliasson, the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, made a strong protest to the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, and insisted that he issue a public statement condemning the incident. He failed in his bid to get Iraq to allow humanitarian aid workers and UN guards back into all parts of the country at full strength. The UN was particularly anxious to get access to the southern marsh region where Shia villagers are being attacked by Iraqi forces.

The Iraqi refusal to allow extensive UN humanitarian intervention paves the way for the United States, Britain and France to ban Iraqi aircraft from flying south of the 32nd parallel as they have already threatened to do.

In a new development the Russian government said it supported the Gulf war allies' plans but would not participate. The UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was briefed on the plans yesterday, but has so far not commented on them.

Mr Eliasson's task was aimed at renegotiating a memorandum of understanding with Baghdad to allow UN guards back into the country in strength to protect food and medicines as well as UN property. Now that he has been rebuffed Mr Eliasson is expected to report to the United Nations Security Council that humanitarian operations are no longer possible in the country, clearing the way for the US and its allies to make the next moves.