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UN weapons inspectors ordered to pull out.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last night he would order the organisation's weapons inspectors and humanitarian staff to leave Iraq. ``I have just informed the (security) council that we will withdraw the inspectors,'' he said.

It was not immediately clear when the evacuation of the 156 inspectors and support staff would begin.

The inspectors had previously said they needed 48 hours' notice to evacuate their teams, suggesting that British and US forces could be at war by the middle of the week.

The decision to withdraw the inspectors was announced shortly after it became clear that the US and its allies had abandoned attempts to get a second UN resolution authorising the use of force against Saddam Hussein and were expected to proceed without one.

Earlier yesterday the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Authority, Mohamed ElBaradei, said he had been contacted late on Sunday night by the US government urging him to withdraw his team.

He said similar advice had been given to the chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and his team.

``I immediately involved the president of the Security Council and asked for guidance. I also informed the UN Secretary-General,'' Mr ElBaradei told the IAEA board in Vienna .

Preparations for departure appeared to have begun in Baghdad even before Mr Annan made his announcement.

Journalists saw UN staff loading boxes and taking them out of their headquarters in the Iraqi capital.

UN observers also halted all operations along the Iraqi-Kuwait border. And soon after the US told the weapons inspectors to leave Iraq, a convoy of UN vehicles, believed to be carrying observers from the de-militarised zone, was seen driving south, away from the Iraqi border town of Umm Qasr, towards Kuwait C i t y.

Around 60 UN vehicles, including cars and trucks, were in the convoy, which was escorted by Kuwaiti police vehicles with their lights flashing.

The convoy was watched by British troops camped on the border awaiting the order to head in the other direction.

CAPTION(S):

LIGHTNING STRIKE: Lightning strikes an airforce base in the Middle East from where RAF Tornados are operating - the shelter being hit in the background is the camp's bomb dump.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 18, 2003
Words:364
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