Thursday, May 9, 2002

KIEV Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, having survived accusations of ordering a journalist killed, is embroiled in a scandal over suspected arms sales to Iraq.

Both investigations involve recordings made secretly by a former bodyguard who has been given political asylum in the United States.

A recording made public this month is said to have the president approving the sale of a $100 million radar system to Iraq, in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

“I don’t know if this is a falsification or not,” said Oleksandyr Zhyr, head of Ukraine’s parliamentary commission investigating the death of journalist Georgy Gongadze.

“I proposed to the president that ‘if you’re not to blame let our expert commission prove this is a lie,’” Mr. Zhyr said.

It is said that in recordings released last year, Mr. Kuchma told aides to get rid of Mr. Gongadze, whose headless body was found in a forest 90 miles outside the capital, Kiev.

Former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, who lives in the United States, says the recordings are his.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Melnychenko said he taped the president because he no longer could stand the corruption he saw within the administration.

“I needed to go [after] the people who are responsible for killing and helping terrorists,” Mr. Melnychenko said. “I’m going to fight so the powers conduct themselves legally.”

In the newly disclosed conversation, someone said to be Mr. Kuchma was heard giving Valeri Malev, director of Ukrspetsexport, the state-run arms-exporting company, the go-ahead to ship the radar system to Iraq.

The 90-second recording, purported to have been made on July 10, 2000, also disclosed a method of transport: hiding the system in crates normally used to export Ukrainian trucks.

On March 3 of this year, Mr. Kuchma was told that a parliamentary commission had evidence he had violated the international arms embargo against Iraq.

Four days later, Mr. Malev died in a car accident.

Bruce Koenig of Bek Tek, a Virginia-based firm that has done work for the FBI and the Pentagon, said in a report that the recordings were authentic.

But Washington has kept the tape scandal at arm’s length.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said during a speech at Johns Hopkins University that the accusations against Mr. Kuchma remained just that.

She said, however, that Washington had a “serious” conversation with Kiev about the question of weapons proliferation.

Olexei Stepura and Peter Byrne, journalists who have spent more than a year listening to and transcribing the tapes, also have voiced suspicions about the recordings’ authenticity.

“The words are very slowly said,” Mr. Stepura said. “You can create these 90 seconds.”

The recordings were made using a digital recorder, making it much easier to manipulate conversations than with a standard analog recorder, technical analysts said.

An increasing number of Ukrainian lawmakers say it is important the tapes be authenticated in Ukraine to put any questions to rest.

“All these are serious accusations,” said Victor Yushchenko, head of the reformist Our Ukraine bloc, which won the popular vote in the parliamentary elections.

“In all of this we need the truth without emotions.”

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