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Iraq test-fires missile for UN inspectors

Falluja (Iraq), Feb. 23 (Reuters): Iraq test-fired a rocket engine today to show UN inspectors the Al-Samoud 2 missile could not violate a 1991 range limit set by the United Nations.

UN arms experts stood a few metres away to watch the test at the Falluja site 70 km west of Baghdad. “It is an experimental test of the Iraqi Al-Samoud missile. This is the fifth time that the arms inspectors see such a test,” Colonel Ali Jasim Hussein said.

UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has ordered Iraq to start destroying its Al-Samoud 2 missiles by March 1, saying they exceed UN limits. Baghdad says the missile was designed to stay within the permit 150-km range.

Iraq said today that Blix’s demand was under “serious” study and that it hoped to settle the issue through “cooperation and agreement” between the two parties.

“We are studying the letter (of Blix) about destroying the missiles in depth and in a serious and comprehensive way,” General Husam Mohammad Amin, head of Iraq’s weapons monitoring, told a news conference.

“We hope that this issue will be resolved without interference from the Americans and the British. I believe that we will be able to resolve this issue without any intervention by those with evil intentions,” he added.

He refused to answer direct questions on whether Iraq would destroy the missiles. “Destroying these missiles will affect our defence capabilities but would not completely terminate them.”

Amin said Baghdad believed it “was not necessary” for Iraqi scientists to be interviewed abroad — a nagging demand by the UN which insists experts on banned weapons should be debriefed on neutral ground to avoid government intimidation.

On the diplomatic front, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was in Baghdad today on a mission for President Vladimir Putin aimed at averting an attack by the US which wants Iraq to disarm.

Primakov, a Middle East expert and a long-time friend of Saddam, was expected to meet senior Iraqi officials before leaving later today.

Amin said UN weapons inspectors have conducted their first interviews with Iraqi scientists without using audio recordings, adding that Iraq had submitted new names of scientists to be interviewed.

He said UN weapons inspectors have searched 635 sites since they began in November and would use a French Mirage warplane in the coming few days during inspections. Baghdad also allowed a German drone to fly in search of prohibited weapons.

Amin said a technical team from United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission would arrive in Baghdad on March 2 to verify sites where biological material was destroyed and buried in 1991.

A South African team of disarmament experts was also due to arrive in Baghdad later this evening to give advise to Iraq on disarmament issues, the Iraqi official added.

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