- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

NIAMEY, Niger — Prime Minister Hama Hamadou has challenged his British counterpart, Tony Blair, to produce the evidence for his claim that Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium from this impoverished African country.

In his first interview since the row erupted over the reported distortion of the British and U.S. case for war against Iraq, Mr. Hamadou accused London and Washington of mistreating an ally, given that Niger sent 500 troops to fight against Saddam in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

“We did not expect to be caught up in all this. Is this how Britain and America treat their allies?” asked Mr Hamadou. “If the British government has evidence to support its claim about Niger’s uranium, then it has only to produce it for everybody to see. Our conscience is clear. We are innocent.”

The Bush administration has admitted that its original assertion that Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium from Niger as part of his nuclear weapons program was based on forged intelligence documents. Britain, however, contends it has intelligence from independent sources to support it — a claim repeated by Prime Minister Blair when he visited Washington this month to address a joint session of Congress.

Mr. Hamadou said his government has received no formal accusation of any involvement in uranium deals with Saddam from either Britain or the United States. Nevertheless, he takes offense to the suggestion Iraq sought the radioactive element from his country.

Speaking in his large office here in the capital, Mr. Hamadou said his country did not have, and has never had, diplomatic or any bilateral relations with Iraq.

“Officials from the two countries have never met to discuss uranium,” he said.

The only contact between the countries was at the Organization of the Islamic Conference. “We attend the conference because we are a Muslim country,” Mr. Hamadou said. “But we have certainly not discussed uranium during any of our contacts with people from Iraq.

“We were the first African country to send soldiers to fight against Saddam after the invasion of Kuwait in 1991,” he said. “Would we really send material to somebody whom we had fought against and who could destroy half the world with a nuclear bomb? It is unthinkable.”

Niger’s prime minister said the origins of the dispute over forged documents lay in a battle for public opinion in Britain and the United States. “We cannot get involved in the politics of the world’s most powerful nations,” he said. “We are a poor country. Our uranium is tightly controlled, and our priorities are to produce enough food to feed our people and provide education for all of our children.”

He dismissed suggestions that the intelligence documents were forged at the Niger Embassy in Rome. “They were crude forgeries,” he said. “They carried the signature of a minister who left office in 1989. Nobody working in the Niger Embassy would have made such a fundamental mistake.”

Mr. Hamadou said he did not believe the accusations would damage his country’s image.

“I think everybody knows that the claims are untrue,” he said. “We have survived famine in Niger. We can survive this.”

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