Chirac vows to veto war resolution

Blair warns against 'letting Saddam off the hook'

France's President, Jacques Chirac, stated explicitly for the first time last night that he would veto a resolution authorising war.

In a live interview on French national television, he said: "No matter what the circumstances, France will vote 'no'. Right now we consider that there is no need for war to achieve the objective we fixed ­ the disarmament of Iraq."

Russia signalled that it too would use its veto if necessary.

Tony Blair today warned France and Russia that they risked letting Saddam Hussein "off the hook" by threatening to veto a new United Nations resolution on Iraq.

The Prime Minister responded to the latest warnings from Paris and Moscow that they were ready to block a new resolution with a warning of his own about the dangers of driving a wedge between Europe and America.

In barbed comments, apparently aimed at French President Jacques Chirac, he said that seeking easy applause by making a show of "standing up to America" could have damaging consequences for the international community.

"If you end up in a world where Europe decides it is on a different side from America, you may get a round of applause, and there will be people who will cheer, and people who will say 'oh that is a great thing that someone's standing up to America'. I understand all of that," he told reporters in Downing Street.

"But when you really think about it, dividing Europe from America, an alliance that has served us well for over half a century, I think that would be a very, very dangerous thing to do.

"The only people who will ever gain from countries being pushed into a position where they choose either for the transatlantic alliance or for Europe, are the bad people."

Meanwhile the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said military action against Iraq without a second UN resolution would be illegal and would not command international support. "If the US and others were to go outside the Security Council and take military action it would not be in conformity with the UN charter," Mr Annan said.

The legitimacy of a war to disarm Iraq without Security Council backing would be "seriously impaired". The US and Britain have argued that such authority exists under a previous UN resolution.

As the pressure from the opposing camp mounted the US indicated that it might accept a very limited compromise on a new resolution.

The vote "will happen this week", Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said. He indicated that the new formulation could contain benchmarks and that the deadline of 17 March in the existing version tabled last Friday was not set in stone.

Both camps on the divided council launched last-ditch drives to win round six undecided votes, which will determine whether Washington and London can gain the necessary nine-vote majority.

Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, visited the three undecided African nations, Cameroon Angola and Guinea, while President George Bush held talks with the leaders of Japan and South Africa, as well as China, another permanent council member with veto power that has indicated it wants the UN inspectors to be given more time.

The US suffered a setback, however, when Zafarullah Khan Jamali, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, one of the floating voters on the Security Council, indicated he would not back the US/British deadline of 17 March for Saddam Hussein to disarm. "It is not best for my country to support war against Iraq," he said.

Last night, Pakistan's UN ambassador, Munir Akram, said that the six undecided members of the Security Council were considering a delayed deadline of 17 April.

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