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Skies erupt as inspectors land in Baghdad

Baghdad, Nov. 18 (Reuters): A team of UN arms inspectors arrived in Iraq today to relaunch a search for weapons of mass destruction on a mission that could trigger a US-led war.

As the inspectors returned to Baghdad, US commanders said American and British aircraft fired on Iraqi air defences after being “threatened” as they patrolled. It was the latest of a series of air skirmishes which analysts say could ignite fullscale conflict.

Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, flew into Baghdad from Cyprus with a team of about 30, the first UN arms inspectors to visit Iraq for four years.

“Let me tell you that we have come here for one single reason and that is because the world wants to have assurances that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Blix told reporters on arrival.

“The situation is tense at the moment, but there is a new opportunity and we are here to provide inspection which is credible... We hope we can all take that opportunity together.”

He added: “There is a new opportunity and we hope that opportunity will be well-utilised so that we can get out of sanctions. And in the long term, we will have a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in West Asia.”

United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan urged Iraq’s leader to give “prompt and unfettered access” to suspect sites.

“I urge President Saddam Hussein to comply fully for the sake of his people, for the sake of the region and for the sake of the whole world,” Annan told a news conference in Sarajevo.

The members of Blix’s United Nations Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission arrived aboard a privately chartered C-130 aircraft carrying the UN insignia. Blix was greeted by Husam Mohammed Amin, head of the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate, which liaises with UN arms inspectors.

The UN team was expected to go straight to the UN inspectors' old offices at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad before starting initial work on logistics like hiring vehicles and setting up laboratories. Formal inspections are not due to start until November 27.

“We should have about 80 to 100 inspectors there by Christmas (December 25). We'll gradually build it up and they'll be rotated in and out,” a spokesman said in Cyprus.

The US European Command said on its website that its planes patrolling northern Iraq today “responded in self-defence to Iraqi attacks by dropping precision-guided munitions on elements of the Iraqi integrated air defence system”.

Western commanders usually describe such increasingly common clashes as being provoked by Iraqi anti-aircraft units. Iraq usually describes them as attacks on civilians and reported seven civilians killed by Western planes on Friday night. US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday Iraqi firing at the patrolling planes was a violation of the November 8 UN resolution that paved the way for the inspectors' return. But he stopped short of suggesting the United States would refer the issue immediately to the U.N. Security Council.

Iraq's press said on Monday Baghdad would cooperate fully with the inspectors.

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