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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 15:05 GMT
US warning on Iraq bio-weapons
US Under-secretary of State John Bolton at the conference
The US has alternatives to on-site inspections
The United States has accused Iraq of developing biological weapons in violation of an international ban.

Speaking in Geneva at a meeting of officials from 144 countries, the US Under-secretary of State, John Bolton, warned that America also suspected Iran, Libya and North Korea of having biological-warfare capabilities.

The United States strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of three years of no UN inspections to improve all phases of its offensive biological weapons programme

John Bolton
Iran immediately denied the accusation.

Syria and Sudan, which are not among the 144 signatories of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, were also mentioned as causes for concern.

Mr Bolton added: "There are other states I could have named which the United States will be contacting privately concerning our belief that they are pursuing an offensive biological weapons programme."

Draft rejected

The Iranian ambassador to the conference, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said the allegation that his country was developing biological weapons was "unjustified and baseless".

At the last meeting of the convention in July, the US rejected a draft protocol which would have strengthened the treaty and made it easier to check if member states were abiding by its rules.

America said the proposed on-site inspections of defence facilities and biotech industries would have put its national security and commercial interests at risk.

Treaties which ban chemical weapons and underground nuclear tests already have strict inspection regimes.

Mr Bolton has again insisted that the protocol would not have stopped "rogue states" developing biological weapons.

Anthrax focuses action

Moves to tighten controls on biological weapons have gained impetus since the anthrax attacks on the US which have left four people dead.

Hazardous materials experts decontaminate each other after leaving the Hart Senate building
The US has fallen prey to anthrax attacks
On the opening day of three weeks of talks to discuss the effectiveness of the 1972 ban, Mr Bolton said: "The United States strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of three years of no UN inspections to improve all phases of its offensive biological weapons programme.

"The existence of Iraq's programme is beyond dispute."

He said the US found North Korea's biological weapons programme "extremely disturbing" and believed it had developed and produced and may have weaponised germ-warfare agents.

He added: "We are also quite concerned about Iran, which the United States believes probably has produced and weaponised biological weapons agents in violation of the convention."

Severe penalties

Although the US was heavily criticised for blocking the protocol - which took six years to draw up - Mr Bolton said the plan would have done nothing to deter states bent on arming themselves with weapons of germ warfare.

"Countries that joined the convention and then ignored their commitments, and certain non-state actors, would never have been hampered by the protocol," he said.

The US has tabled a number of alternatives for tightening the convention.

They include a requirement for member states to pass laws imposing severe penalties on anyone making biological weapons and making it easier for those accused in another country to be extradited.

The US has also suggested a mechanism under which the UN secretary-general can order inspections when violations are suspected.

'Sacred duty'

Mr Bolton said the United States knows that Osama Bin Laden - who it blames for the 11 September suicide attacks - considers obtaining weapons of mass destruction to be a "sacred duty and wants to use them against the United States".

"We are concerned that he could have been trying to acquire a rudimentary biological weapons capability, possibly with support from a state," he said.

Belgian Ambassador Jean Lint, speaking for the European Union, said the 15-nation bloc wanted to include "investigation measures" in the treaty.

The BBC's Jim Fish
"This is not the first time the United States have named Iraq as a potential user of biological weapons"
See also:

18 Nov 01 | Americas
US accused over bio-weapons deal
25 Jul 01 | Americas
Q&A: Germ warfare
25 Jul 01 | Americas
Dismay over US germ warfare stance
03 Aug 01 | Europe
Germ warfare talks suspended
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