Saddam set to take up UN oil offer

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New York (AP) - Iraq told ambassadors from non-aligned countries yesterday that it is ready to negotiate a UN plan to allow limited oil sales to buy humanitarian supplies.

Diplomats said the offer was relayed by Iraq's UN ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, to envoys from Botswana, Chile, Egypt, Guinea-Bissau and Honduras, all current members of the Security Council. The offer was to negotiate with the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

The Security Council imposed sweeping sanctions against Iraq in 1990 after its invasion of Kuwait. The council has refused to lift them until it is satisfied Iraq has complied with UN demands to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction.

The sanctions prevent Iraq from exporting oil, and the country's 20 million people face skyrocketing inflation and widespread shortages. The UN has offered to let Iraq sell $4bn (pounds 2,5bn) of oil a year to pay for food and medicine. Iraq rejects the offer, saying attached conditions violate its sovereignty.

Word of the reported offer surfaced on the fifth anniversary of the Gulf War which has revived debate on the trade embargo. Key members of the Security Council agreed in principle on Monday to dispatch a fact-finding group to Baghdad.

France, Russia and China - three of the permanent members of the 15-member Security Council - have been sympathetic to Iraqi calls to ease sanctions. But the US and Britain, the other two permanent members, say no - at least until Iraq meets all UN cease-fire terms, including revealing all information on its weapons of mass destruction.