'Radar sale to Iraq' inquiry opens
KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) -- U.S. and British officials are starting an investigation into suspicions that Ukraine approved the sale of an aircraft tracking system to Iraq despite U.N. sanctions.
The probe was sparked when Washington received a tape allegedly recorded in July 2000 in which Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma is heard approving the sale of "Kolchuga" early warning systems to Baghdad.
A senior U.S. administration official said the tracking system, which can detect and track aircraft without giving itself away, was "very sophisticated" and "should not be in the hands of Iraq." If this were the case it could complicate any possible U.S.-led military action to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The tape, which the U.S. State Department said it believed was authentic, was given to Washington by Kuchma's former bodyguard, Mykola Melnichenko, and has prompted the United States to re-examine its policy towards the ex-communist country, and in particular towards the president.
The U.S. government suspended $55 million in aid to Kiev last month and officials have told CNN that more action could follow unless Washington receives a full account of any sales to Iraq.
Viktor Medvedchuk, chief of Kuchma's staff, said on Monday Ukraine would cooperate with the experts. Government sources said the team would visit military installations where the Kolchugas are located and the producer in eastern Ukraine.
"Ukraine is very worried about the charges and will do everything to help the investigators," Reuters quoted Medvedchuk as saying. The experts declined to comment.
On Friday, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that experts have reviewed the tapes and concluded the original recordings were edited.
The Scientific and Research Institute for Legal Examinations at the Justice Ministry in Kiev had concluded that "the recordings of conversations, which were cited by the U.S. State Department, were edited after they were initially recorded," Reuters quoted the statement as saying.
Kuchma last week gave "his word of honour" that he had not sold the system to Iraq and dismissed the tapes as dubious, Reuters said.
The joint investigation starting on Monday involves U.S. and British "military and industrial experts," U.S. officials told Russia's Interfax news agency. It was agreed at a recent meeting between Ukrainian Presidential Chief of Staff Viktor Medvedchuk and U.S. Undersecretary of State Elizabeth Jones.
A spokeswoman for Britain's Defence Ministry told Reuters on Monday the team would help investigate "concerns" over the radar
system, including whether it had been sold to Iraq and what potential threat that might pose.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the investigation would "look into the circumstances of the procurement effort by the Iraqis, the nature of the equipment, (and) what transfers did or did not occur."
U.S. officials have described the system as using multiple sites to passively receive aircraft signals, such as communications from warplanes. The sites then feed locational information to a central computer, which can process and triangulate a plane's location.
Key to such a system is having computers and weapons guidance fast enough to accurately aim any ground fire.
"First of all, it matters to us whether Iraq got this system or not," Boucher said, adding the administration was following up on some unconfirmed reports that the transfer took place.
"But what also matters to us is the degree of cooperation we get, the degree of transparency we get, and the degree of commitment we get towards avoiding a repetition."
The issue of weapons sales to Iraq in the face of U.N. sanctions has long been a sore spot in U.S.-Ukraine relations.
Boucher said the matter has been repeatedly raised with the Kuchma government "to ensure that they protected against sales and made sure that no sales were made despite Iraq's attempts to procure military equipment."
The suspended aid to Ukraine's central government, totalling nearly $55 million for the 2002 fiscal year, makes up 35 percent of U.S. aid to the country. The cut-off affects programmes funded under the Freedom Support Act, which includes work with the Ukraine government on political and fiscal reform.
But it does not affect the bulk of U.S. assistance to Ukraine -- most of which goes to the private sector, non-governmental organisations, small businesses and local government entities.
U.S. military and non-proliferation assistance to Ukraine will also be unaffected.