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Pressure on Hoon over Kelly chat

Hoon pictured leaving the Kelly home
Hoon pictured leaving the Kelly home

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LONDON, England -- The UK Defence Ministry has confirmed its minister Geoff Hoon had spoken to scientist David Kelly but would not give any further details ahead of Lord Hutton's public inquiry.

Kelly, who was outed as the "mole" in the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) row between the government and the BBC, was found dead near his Oxfordshire home on July 18 just days after giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into the intelligence case for war against Iraq.

Hoon has said in the past that he could not recall having had any official meetings with Kelly, an expert on Iraq's WMD. But it was revealed that Hoon chatted with Kelly after the two "bumped" into each other in a canteen.

A ministry spokeswoman told CNN: "The minister had been asked by a reporter whether he had had any official meeting with Kelly. He said 'not that I can recall,' which was the case."

No further details were available, including whether the chat had taken place before or after a September dossier was released outlining the government's case for war.

The government is alleged, in a story by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, to have "sexed up" intelligence reports on Iraq's alleged WMD in that dossier.

The Hutton inquiry, looking at the events leading up to the death of the 59-year-old Kelly, is set to begin Friday with a preliminary hearing setting out how Hutton intends to conduct the investigation.

The inquiry will then be adjourned until after Kelly's funeral, which "will not take place for some time," the Department for Constitutional Affairs said in a statement.

Last week, Hoon visited the civil servant's widow, Janice Kelly, at her home for 45 minutes after she requested the meeting.

The government has come in for criticism, Hoon's department especially, after Kelly's name was revealed to journalists.

Former International Development Secretary Clare Short, who resigned after the war, told The Independent newspaper Monday: "Normally if a civil servant talks to the press, you have a leak inquiry.

"There would be no notion of a civil servant being named and thrown into the public arena, a media frenzy and a select committee.

"So, normal procedures were breached. It is very difficult to say that was not for political purposes, and that is very serious."

Short blamed not only Hoon, but also Downing Street communications director Alastair Campbell, for Kelly's identification.

"It is inconceivable that Geoff Hoon would not have discussed it with Alastair Campbell," she added.

The government suffered another setback Monday when a majority of people told a CNN/TIME poll they believed that British Prime Minister Tony Blair intentionally misled the public over Iraqi weapons.

The poll, conducted by TNS in the UK, Germany and France, showed 51 percent thought Blair had deliberately misled voters. (Full Story)

This view was highest in France (58 percent), followed by Germany (53 percent), then Britain (42 percent). No WMD have been discovered since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April.

The row between the BBC and government continued during the weekend bringing into focus the government's review of the BBC charter, up for renewal in the autumn.

BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies, who continued to stand by the reporter Gilligan, accused ministers of threatening the broadcaster's independence in revenge for its reports on the Iraq dossier.

He was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying: "Our integrity is under attack and we are chastised for taking a different view on editorial matters from that of the government and its supporters.

"Because we have had the temerity to do this, it is hinted that a system that has protected the BBC for 80 years should be swept away and replaced by an external regulator that will 'bring the BBC to heel.'"

At the same time, Leader of the Commons Peter Hain accused the BBC of behaving like a tabloid newspaper in the hope of causing embarrassment to the government.

But a spokeswoman for Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell insisted the BBC's license review would not be used to "settle scores" and would not compromise the independence of the BBC.

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