France insists Saddam has never bought uranium

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Indy Politics

The British Government's claim that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium from Niger has been dismissed by the French ambassador to the central African state.

In another blow to the credibility of the Blair Government over the issue, Denis Vène said it was impossible for uranium to leave the country without French officials knowing.

France has a substantial stake in the two companies that mine, process and export uranium, and its movement is "perfectly controlled". The ambassador told The Sunday Telegraph: "The mining companies check and monitor the amounts that leave Niger all the way from the mines to the ports. If any were to go missing, it would be very obvious and the inspectors would pick it up straight away."

British government sources had claimed that French intelligence supplied London with details of Iraqi uranium purchases. But this has been vehemently denied by Paris.

M. Vène was backed by Rabiou Hassanne Yari, Niger's Minister of Mines, who told The Independent on Sunday that he was "sure and certain" that his country had never sold uranium to Iraq.

Of Mr Blair's claim that 270 tons had been purchased in the 1980s, he said: "It's not true. The Iraqis asked, but there was never any transactions."

He added that the request was not a secret. It was "officially made and officially turned down". He pointed out that Niger's uranium production was subject to scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Britain had maintained that the "purchase" of the uranium in the 1980s made it likely that Iraq went back for more.