UN attacks Britain for withholding evidence

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The Independent Online

Officials from the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, have accused Tony Blair of operating an "information black-out" by refusing to hand over evidence that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger.

The Government says it has "additional evidence" which shows Saddam Hussein was seeking to purchase "significant quantities" of the nuclear fuel as part of his effort to develop a weapons programme. But it refuses to disclose the additional evidence because it says it came from third country which did not wish to reveal itself.

It says this evidence, which was not shared with the Americans, was used when it made the claim about the Niger connection in its September dossier. Other documents provided to the British and American governments by the Italian intelligence services purporting to show a deal between Iraq and Niger, were found to be forgeries when copies were passed to the IAEA by Washington.

Under the international legislation which ordered the IAEA to investigate whether Iraq had nuclear weapons programmes, all signatories must co-operate with the agency's officials. Sources say there is no exemption for countries that claim evidence was provided by a third party.

A Western diplomat close to the workings of the IAEA, said: "Despite requests, the British Government has provided no such evidence. Senior officials at the agency think it is involved in an information black-out." The Italian documents were provided to the IAEA in February by the US. It took the agency just 10 days to conclude they were not genuine.

In Washington yesterday, the CIA director, George Tenet - blamed by the White House for approving a false claim over Iraq's nuclear programme - was questioned by senators over the controversy. Mr Tenet was summoned to a closed-door session by the Senate's intelligence committee to explain how a claim that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa - known to be false and based on forged documents provided by the Italian intelligence services - was included in the State of the Union address.

In a statement, Mr Tenet accepted that he bore overall responsibility for approving the speech but said there was pressure to make the claim.

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