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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2006, 06:22 GMT 07:22 UK
Downer 'unaware of bribe reports'
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer
Downer says he knew nothing about the allegations
Australia's foreign minister has told an inquiry that he was not aware of reports that wheat exporters were making illegal payments to Iraq.

Alexander Downer was testifying before an inquiry in Sydney into the actions of the Australian Wheat Board (AWB).

It is alleged the board paid millions of dollars in bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime to secure contracts.

Prime Minister John Howard is expected to deliver a written statement to the inquiry later today.

Mr Downer is the most senior government figure so far to give evidence.

'No specific recollection'

In a written statement to the inquiry, which was made public as he took the stand, Mr Downer repeatedly denied having seen a series of warnings sent by diplomats about possible corruption at AWB.

The hearing had previously been told Australian embassy staff and trade officials began alerting ministers about the company's dealings in Iraq six years ago.

But Mr Downer said he did not see the warnings.

"I do not have a specific recollection of having received or read this cable or of it otherwise being brought to my attention," he wrote in his statement in reference to each cable.

On Monday, Trade Minister Mark Vaile told the inquiry he did not see the cables.

He said he was "aware in a very general sense" that the UN had raised concerns about the activities of the AWB, but he said he thought the matter was being dealt with by Australian trade officials.

The illegal payments are alleged to have been made under Iraq's oil-for-food programme.

A United Nations report published last year accused AWB of paying up to $222m to Saddam Hussein's regime between 1997 and 2003 to secure lucrative grain contracts.

It is alleged that under the auspices of the oil-for-food programme - which allowed Iraq to export a limited amount of oil to pay for food - money was channelled to the regime through a Jordanian trucking firm owned by the government.

The Australian government says the first time it heard about the allegations was when the UN report was published last year.

But recent opinion polls have suggested that many Australians are not convinced their government has told the truth, the BBC's Phil Mercer says.

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