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Iraqis again turn back U.S. weapons experts

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Iraqis turned back U.N. weapons inspection teams with American experts for the fourth day in a row Thursday, drawing U.N. warnings they were in "clear violation" of the 1991 cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf War.

Thursday's confrontation followed U.N. reports that Iraqis were taking advantage of a two-week forced halt in weapons inspections to disable surveillance cameras and hide key equipment at suspected arms sites.Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf confirmed in a letter to the Security Council that Iraq moved some equipment but said it was due to fears of a U.S. air strike. He said one U.N. surveillance camera was damaged when the engine for a short-range missile exploded during a test.

In Washington Thursday, Defense Secretary William Cohen warned Iraq that it risks incurring an economic or military response if it continues to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"This is not a negotiable item," Cohen said. "It is imperative that Iraq comply with U.N. mandates."

With tensions increasing, three U.N. teams - one specializing in missiles, another in biological warfare and the third in chemical weapons - went to three sites Thursday, said Alan Dacey, a spokesman for the U.N. weapons inspection program.

When the teams arrived, Iraqi officials told them they could conduct their inspections but only without the American experts, Dacey said in a written statement.

All the inspectors turned back after the team chiefs "informed the Iraqi authorities that what they are doing is considered a clear violation of the cease-fire agreements," Dacey said.

If the Security Council were to declare Iraq in "material breach" of the cease-fire, it could pave the way for military action.

The Turkish daily Hurriyet quoted Prime Minister Mesut Yil-maz as saying the United States has asked Turkey to allow the use of an air base for possible air raids against Iraq. Yilmaz was quoted as saying Turkey did not give an answer and is awaiting action by the Security Council.

Iraq's latest blocking of inspectors came as envoys from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met for a second day with officials in Baghdad.

The envoys are trying to persuade the government not to interfere with the inspections.

Al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi foreign minister, said the United Nations was to blame for the failure to carry out inspections for more than a week.

The inspections are meant to verify whether Iraq has destroyed all long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction - a condition for ending the gulf war.