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The BBC's Mark Devenport reports
"Western diplomats remain sceptical"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 22 November, 2000, 23:46 GMT
Iraq denies oil exports to Syria
Iraq's west Qurna oil plant
Reports said 150,000 barrels a day were being pumped to Syria
Iraq has denied reports that it has begun exporting oil to its former enemy Syria, in defiance of United Nations sanctions.

The denial came after reports from Syrian and unofficial Iraqi sources that Iraq had started pumping oil through the pipeline for the first time in 18 years.

Women sell powdered milk in Baghdad
Revenues from Iraq oil are used for food and medicines
After being approached by the UN, Baghdad said it was merely taking measures to prepare for future exports of oil through the Syrian route.

The BBC's UN correspondent, Mark Devenport, says Western diplomats remain sceptical of Iraq's denial.

He says the UK has called for an early meeting of the UN Iraq sanctions committee to discuss the latest information on the Syrian pipeline.

US concern

Under the terms of the UN-administered oil-for-food programme governing Iraqi exports, Baghdad is authorised to export oil through its pipeline in Turkey or its port at Mina-al-Bakr.

The revenues of the sale of oil must be used to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people.

Earlier on Wednesday, the United States said it was taking the reports seriously.

It said the US embassy was discussing the issue with authorities in Damascus.

Syria has denied it was importing up to 150,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day.

Air embargo

The US, which is seeking to stop the erosion of UN sanctions against Iraq, would oppose Iraqi oil exports through the pipeline without UN permission.

The US and UK have recently expressed concern over the decision by a number of countries, including France, to conduct humanitarian flights to Iraq without permission from the UN Security Council.

This breaking of a de facto air travel embargo has been bolstered by improving relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

The UK and other members of the Security Council also want to discuss the donation of a Boeing 747 to Iraq by a Qatari businessman to find out if it violates sanctions.

There has also been talk of a direct dialogue between Iraq and the UN, which has raised expectations that a solutions to the sanctions stalemate is within grasp.

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