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 Tuesday, 24 December, 2002, 19:34 GMT
UN seeks to protect Iraqi experts
UN inspectors at an Iraqi factory
UN inspectors will be working over Christmas
The United Nations nuclear agency has urged countries to guarantee the safety of Iraqi scientists and their families as it seeks the truth about Baghdad's weapons programmes.

"Governments have to step forward and offer protection and even asylum to those people," said Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

I informed him about what I know clearly and openly, for in fact we have nothing to hide

Iraqi scientist Sabah Abd al-Nur

The IAEA says it has begun identifying Iraqi scientists who might have crucial information.

The United States says the UN inspectors must be able to take Iraqi scientists and their families abroad so that they can reveal what they know without fear of retribution.

Interview monitored

An Iraqi nuclear expert, Professor Sabah Abd al-Nur, has been questioned by UN inspectors at the Baghdad University of Technology. He is the first scientist to be formally interviewed by the UN since 1998.

USS Constellation in the Gulf
1,000 US troops due in Israel for an exercise to test Patriot missile defence system
3,000 US army troops end large-scale manoeuvres in the Kuwaiti desert
USS Constellation and USS Harry Truman battle groups deployed in Gulf and the Mediterranean in mid-December

At his insistence an Iraqi liaison official attended the interview - despite the inspectors' new UN-mandated authority to interview Iraqi scientists in private.

"I apologised and requested that a member of the National Monitoring Directorate be present," said Mr Nur.

"The meeting was very friendly. The man dealt with me professionally... He did not raise the idea of questioning outside Iraq."

The United States has not yet offered guarantees of asylum to all Iraqis the inspectors wish to question.

UN weapons experts continued their inspections on Tuesday, leaving their headquarters in Baghdad for secret locations. Inspections are also expected to continue on Christmas Day.

Saddam message

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said the inspections would expose US "lies" - provided they were conducted fairly. His comments came in a Christmas Eve message read out on Iraqi state television.

Iraqi scientist Sabah Abd al-Nur
Sabah Abd al-Nur: Meeting was "very friendly"

"We are confident that the outcome of the inspections will be a great shock to the United States and will expose its lies, if things remain on a technical and professional course with no hidden agendas," he said.

"The world will then discover its false allegations and will see the bad intentions of its officials."

Earlier, a UN spokesman in Baghdad, Hiro Ueki, told the AFP news agency that about 150 inspections had been carried out since the UN resumed its work in Iraq.

Preparing for war

In another development, the United Nations confirmed that it was stockpiling relief supplies in the Middle East in case of a war in Iraq.

US troops with Iraqi arms in 1991
Nearly four tons of VX nerve agents
Growth media for 20,000 litres of biological warfare agents
15,000 shells for use in biological warfare
6,000 chemical warfare bombs
Nuclear information

The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, said that donor countries had been asked for more than $37m in emergency funding to cover contingency plans for Iraq at a meeting in Geneva on 13 December.

Aid agencies fear a humanitarian crisis involving thousands of refugees and widespread civil unrest if Iraq fails to comply with UN resolutions to disarm and triggers a US-led attack.

Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, said that "a first-phase assessment" had been made of action to take if fighting broke out.

He said the planning focused on what he called a modest pre-positioning of food and equipment.

Mr Eckhard added that the UN still expected Iraq to comply with the demands of the UN Security Council so that military action could be avoided.

On Monday, Iraqi fighter aircraft shot down an unmanned American surveillance plane over southern Iraq.

But General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing he did not see it as an escalation in the crisis.

  The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"One-on-one interviews with Iraqi scientists have started"

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24 Dec 02 | Middle East
24 Dec 02 | Media reports
22 Dec 02 | Middle East
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