UN chief Kofi Annan warns of nuclear catastrophe

An international conference on the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty opened on Monday with demands from the US and its allies that Iran and North Korea give up and dismantle nuclear programmes that could be adapted to deliver weapons.

Accusing Iran and North Korea--which the US has accused of forming an “axis of evil” - of being in breach of the 1970 treaty, the US delegation reiterated proposals by George W. Bush, US president, for closing NPT “loopholes”.

Such states should be denied assistance in developing their civilian nuclear programmes, Stephen Rademaker, assistant secretary of state for arms control, told the NPT review conference, held every five years.

Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, warned the 188 parties to the treaty that a nuclear catastrophe would have global consequences. But he also reminded the five nuclear-armed states that are signatories of their duty to make progress in reducing their arsenals.

Developments at the weekend reinforced concerns that the month-long conference will fail to reach any significant conclusions. North Korea tested a short-range missile and Iran threatened to pull out of an understanding with the International Atomic Energy Agency and partially resume its nuclear fuel programme.

Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, said he held “frank and open” discussions with his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, in New York, in an effort to prevent the Islamic republic from abandoning a freeze on its sensitive nuclear activities as agreed with European Union members France, Germany and the UK last year.

Iran insists on its right to develop nuclear technology and denies intending to make nuclear weapons. Mr Fischer said negotiations with Iran were difficult. Diplomats said earlier he would deliver a “stern warning” and tell Iran it risked referral to the UN Security Council.

“The breaches that have been identified with regard to Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA have shaken our confidence in the aims of its nuclear programme,” Mr Fischer said in his speech.

In Washington, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, and Nobutaka Machimura, Japan's foreign minister, discussed the failure to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table over the past year and at what point that crisis should be referred back to the UN Security Council. North Korea pulled out of the NPT in 2003 and says it has produced nuclear weapons since then. It is not attending the conference.

Referring to North Korea's withdrawal, Mr Annan called for confidence in the treaty to be strengthened and violations addressed. He also warned that states wanting to develop peaceful nuclear technology “must not insist that they can only do so by developing capacities that might be used to create nuclear weapons”.

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