28 July 2003

Niger hits back over uranium claim

The prime minister of the west African state of Niger has challenged Tony Blair to produce evidence for his controversial claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium there.

"If Britain has evidence to support its claim then it has only to produce it for everybody to see," said Prime Minister Hama Hamadou in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph.

Mr Blair has stuck by the claim, first made public in a British Government dossier, that Iraq tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger, even though the allegation has been widely discredited.

The Bush administration has said it was a mistake for the claim to have been included in the key presidential State of the Union address in January.

The head of the CIA and a senior national security adviser have taken the blame for allowing the allegation to be included in the address, despite the CIA's long-held doubts about its credibility.

The UN has said that the claim was based on forged documents but the UK says it has a different source which substantiates the claim.

"We were the first African country to send soldiers to fight against Saddam after the invasion of Kuwait in 1991," Mr Hamadou said.

"Would we really send material to somebody whom we had fought against and who could destroy half the world with a nuclear bomb? It's unthinkable".

He told the newspaper his government had not received any formal accusation of involvement with Saddam, saying that the row had its roots in the battle for public opinion in the UK and the US.

"We cannot get involved in the politics of the world's most powerful nations. We are a poor country. Our uranium is tightly controlled and our priorities are to produce enough food to feed our people and provide education for all of our children," he said.

But he said the row would not affect Niger's reputation.

"Everybody know s that the claims are untrue," he told the paper.

"We have survived famine in Niger. We can survive this".

Nough said, really.

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