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 Tuesday, 7 January, 2003, 10:48 GMT
Iraq inspectors start aerial searches
Iraqi soldiers salute at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Iraqi soldiers were on parade for Army Day
United Nations inspectors have begun using helicopters for the first time in their search for banned weapons in Iraq.

Three UN helicopters left a military airport in Baghdad on Tuesday morning for a phosphate factory 450 kilometres (280 miles) west of the Iraqi capital.

Separately, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said inspectors have found nothing suspicious so far.

Mohamed El Baradei
We haven't yet seen any smoking gun

Mohamed El Baradei
IAEA head

Mohamed El Baradei said there was no evidence that Iraq had lied in its declarations on nuclear arms - but added that it was still too early to draw conclusions.

The phosphate factory the inspectors visited on Tuesday processed uranium before the 1991 Gulf War, UN spokesman Hiro Ueki said.

He said that the inspectors had planned to begin using helicopters last week but had to delay the operations for unspecified technical reasons.

Last month, the United States said the inspectors were not being "aggressive" enough and urged them to step up their investigations.

UN teams inspected at least five sites on Tuesday in addition to the phosphate factory.

Western air strikes

Speaking at the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna, Mr El Baradei said the agency's inspectors on the ground did not have a "smoking gun".

He added: "We're still very much in the process of an inspection and it's too early for us to come to any conclusion."

Earlier, weapons inspectors rejected an accusation by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that they were working as spies.

On Monday, Western planes bombed targets in southern Iraq.

The US Central Command said Monday's targets were mobile radar stations that had been moved into the zone. Iraq said the targets were civilian.

It was the fourth time since the beginning of the year that planes of the US-UK coalition patrolling a "no-fly zone" in Iraq have struck.

Two such zones were established in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.

Intelligence plea

IAEA experts are in Iraq to check for any signs of a prohibited atomic weapons programme.

Other inspectors from the UN Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission (Unmovic), are looking for biological or chemical weapons.

Last month Iraq presented a 12,000-page report on its weapons programmes. Some countries, including the US, have accused Baghdad of lying in that report.

US President George W Bush salutes in front of a tank
Bush has ordered more troops to the Gulf

Mr El Baradei and Unmovic chief Hans Blix are expected to give the UN Security Council a full report on Iraq's compliance with disarmament resolutions on 27 January.

The BBC's Rob Watson, in Washington, says the statement presents a potential problem for the US administration, which has been preparing for war.

Though US President George W Bush has always insisted that it is up to Iraq to prove that it is telling the truth - and not for the UN to show it is lying - the absence of concrete evidence will make it harder to convince critics at home and abroad that the use of force is necessary, our correspondent adds.

Mr El Baradei also said the IAEA needed more intelligence from members states about Iraq's alleged atomic programme.

"We've started to get some intelligence, but not as much as we'd like to see," he said.

Mr El Baradei declined to say which countries had given intelligence.

  The BBC's Matt Prodger
"So far those inspectors have found nothing to help President Bush"

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See also:

07 Jan 03 | Middle East
07 Jan 03 | Middle East
07 Jan 03 | Politics
06 Jan 03 | Middle East
06 Jan 03 | Middle East
31 Dec 02 | Middle East
07 Jan 03 | Politics
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