Foreign ministers gather for crisis talks

 

Powerful foreign ministers headed to Geneva yesterday for talks on the Iraq arms monitoring crisis and France urged them to show Baghdad "a light at the end of the tunnel" of sanctions.

The meeting in the early hours of today between the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Russia and the US took place after Washington ordered some of its most powerful warplanes to the Gulf.

But the ministers seemed keen to press for a diplomatic solution to the row, set off by President Saddam Hussein's expulsion last week of American members of UN inspection teams searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

"We want very much to end the crisis in the Gulf through diplomatic means," the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, said in New Delhi, before cutting short a visit to India to fly to Geneva.

"We are going to meet to find a good solution to this crisis," France's Mr Hubert Vedrine told reporters during a visit to Germany.

"I expect a lot from . . . [the] meeting," the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Yevgeny Primakov, a pivotal figure in the crisis, said on his arrival in Geneva.

The fourth minister will be Britain's Mr Robin Cook, who said the meeting reflected the common determination of the UN Security Council to resolve the crisis.

The talks began at about 2 a.m. (1 a.m. Irish time) at the European headquarters of the UN, the Palais des Nations.

"A topic of the talks will be to reach consensus on precisely what Iraq must do to end the sanctions," a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Ms Anne Gazeau-Secret, said in Paris.

The idea "is to see a light at the end of the tunnel . . . if there is co-operation there will be a reward. There will be an end to the sanctions".

Mr Primakov, an Arabic-speaker and Middle East specialist, suggested before leaving Moscow he would bring a blueprint for solving the crisis.

The Russian President, Mr Boris Yeltsin, and Mr Primakov had talks in Moscow on Tuesday with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Tariq Aziz, and Mr Aziz had more consultations there yesterday. Iraqi newspapers said Iraq had received Russian proposals to settle the stand-off.

Washington said it would send six B-52 bombers and six F-117A stealth fighters to the Gulf this week to join some 250 US aircraft and 22 ships poised near Iraq.

President Clinton also authorised the US commander in the region to send an air expeditionary force of about 30 more fighters and B-1 bombers to the region if needed, Defence Department spokesman Mr Ken Bacon said.

He said the new deployment was triggered in part by "extremely active" Iraqi air defence moves, some of which he called an offensive threat to US and allied jets patrolling "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq.

Iraq's ruling Baath party newspaper, al-Thawra, said Iraqi antiaircraft weapons were on "full alert" to retaliate against any US military strike.

A U-2 spy plane flew a UN mission over central Iraq without incident on Tuesday, despite threats by Baghdad to shoot down such aircraft. - (Reuters)

AFP adds: Iraqi deputies have been called to attend an emergency parliamentary meeting this morning, Iraqi state television said last night. In an announcement, Iraqi television "invited all deputies to take part without fail in a meeting Thursday at 9 a.m. (6 a.m Irish time)" at the Iraqi parliament.

Iraqi sources said the 250-member parliament would examine "important questions relating to the crisis".

The exact reason for the session was not immediately disclosed.