French plane arrives in Baghdad defying U.N. sanctions


BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP

A French plane carrying doctors, athletes and artists landed in Baghdad on Friday, defying a request from a U.N. committee that upholds the sanctions regime on Iraq.

The flight appeared to be the first to arrive in Iraq without clearance from the U.N. sanctions committee since the world body imposed an embargo on the country after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

In welcoming the chartered plane at Saddam International Airport, an Iraqi Olympic Committee official, Hussein Saeed, said they had taken “a big initiative in breaking the embargo.”

The spokesman for the French visitors, Jihad Feghali, a Frenchman of Lebanese origin, said the flight had closely followed the guidelines for such missions laid down by the French Foreign Ministry.

“There is no need for permission from the United Nations,” Feghali told reporters when asked about breaking the U.N. embargo.

In New York, the Netherlands’ U.N. Ambassador Peter van Walsum, who heads the U.N. sanctions committee on Iraq, noted that France did not follow a request to delay the flight until the 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) deadline for Security Council members to register objections, a spokesman said.

The sanctions committee normally gives 24 hours for council members to register objections, but because of the urgency in the French case it cut the time to 20 hours, the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

France had informed the U.N. committee on Iraq on Thursday night that the flight would be taking off early Friday. France refused a request to delay the flight so the issue could be studied.

In Paris, the Foreign Ministry denied Friday suggestions that France had flouted U.N. sanctions.

“This is absolutely not a violation of the embargo,” spokesman Francois Rivasseau told reporters.

He said the flight “was essentially to send doctors and surgeons to Iraq” and should not be confused with regular civilian flights, which were prohibited by the sanctions.

“We in no way want to violate or put into question the sanctions,” Rivasseau said. “We want only to apply them.”

Russia sent a similar flight to Iraq last Sunday and received committee approval — although its passenger list also included oil executives interested in making deals with Baghdad.

The increased flights, with their questionable passenger lists and last minute notifications, are an indication of the growing challenge to sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Friday there could be no let-up on sanctions.

“If the United States stops insisting that the sanctions regime be lived up to, and we continue to have our policy of regime change, then you can be sure that those things won’t happen,” Albright told reporters. She did not mention the planned French flight.

The French trip to Baghdad was to last three to four days, according to Air Partner, which helped organize the flight. The plane was chartered from the company Euralair by the May Foundation, specialized in humanitarian operations, according to an Air Partner official, asking not to be identified by name.

The trip is aimed at breaking Iraq’s isolation, the official said, adding that “international resolutions tolerate flights to Iraq if they are humanitarian and under the condition that they not involve commercial exchanges.”

France was among a handful of U.N. Security Council members that stepped up a campaign against the sanctions on Thursday, with proposals to cut the compensation fund for victims of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and delay a US$16 billion payout to Kuwait’s oil company.