Beijing, Washington quarrel over China's role in Iraq

DENIAL: China repeated its charge that the US is trying to divert attention away from its air strikes on Iraq by alleging that Chinese workers have been helping Iraq

AFP AND REUTERS , WASHINGTON AND BEIJING

Fri, Feb 23, 2001 - Page 1

A day after the US asked China to explain reports its workers had helped enhance Iraqi air defenses, Beijing yesterday again denied the allegations, accusing Washington of having ulterior motives.

In what is shaping up as the first major dispute between China and the US since President George W. Bush took office in January, a foreign ministry spokesman repeated charges the reports were an attempt to divert opinion from US and British strikes on Iraq.

"Any effort to mislead the public and divert public attention for ulterior motives is futile," Zhu Bangzao told a news conference.

He said China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, had "always strictly and seriously" upheld Council decisions on Iraq. Zhu also repeated China's condemnation of last Friday's allied raids on Iraqi air defense installations.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell asked new Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi on Wednesday for an explanation about reports that Chinese workers installed fiber-optics that enhanced Iraq's air defense systems, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"We've raised these specific reports with the Chinese, and we would expect a response," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

The demand followed last week's bombing of Iraqi air defenses by US an British planes which Pentagon officials said was carried out on Friday, the Muslim holy day, specifically to avoid endangering Chinese technicians.

Both Iraq and China have denied the accusations, which Boucher said were raised Wednesday when Yang, presented his credentials to Powell.

The reports were also raised during a trip to Beijing last month by David Welch, US assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, he said.

Pentagon officials said Chinese technicians had been working on an underground fiber-optic network that would have enhanced Iraq's capacity to target allied planes.

The US and Britain said that Friday's raids were carried out amid signs of increased belligerency by Iraq's air defense network.

Boucher said the US had told China that it insisted on full implementation of all relevant UN resolutions.

Richard Butler, a former UN arms inspector, meanwhile said that the UN Security Council could be seriously undermined if it is proven that China provided fiber-optics to enhance Iraqi air defenses.

In an interview with Reuters Television, Butler said Beijing, as one of the council's five permanent members, has a special obligation to uphold the laws it helped make and to explain what seems to be "credible" reports of its involvement in the anti-aircraft system upgrade.

"If it proved to be the case that a permanent member of the Security Council was actually violating the council's own decisions, which it helped draw up, that would be of very serious interest to a lot of countries, not just the United States," Butler said.

"It would bring the Security Council into further disrepute. It would make countries wonder about just exactly what motivated China into behaving this way," he said.