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The last two Armenian diplomats remaining in Baghdad have been ordered to leave Iraq to avoid any risk to their lives during the impending U.S.-led military attack, the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan announced on Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian regretted Washington’s intention to invade Iraq without an appropriate UN resolution. “We wish that everything happened with the approval of the UN Security Council,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is not the case.”

The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Dziunik Aghajanian, told RFE/RL earlier in the day that the two diplomats, whose families were evacuated last week, were told to return to Armenia because the situation in and around Iraq is becoming increasingly “dangerous.” She said they will cross into neighboring Syria by land and then fly back to Yerevan.

The move came as the United States and its allies, who have amassed 280,000 troops in the region, made final preparations to oust President Saddam Hussein. U.S. President George W. Bush has given the Iraqi leader until Thursday to flee his country or face a massive attack.

Armenia has opposed a unilateral U.S. military action without a United Nations mandate throughout the Iraqi crisis. Oskanian reaffirmed this position during his government’s weekly question-and-answer session in the parliament.

“We have always stood for Iraq’s disarmament,” he said. “That disarmament, whether it is done peacefully or by force, should enjoy the support of the UN Security Council.”

“Countries supporting or opposing the war have been trying to get our and other countries’ backing. I have been in fairly intensive talks with their representatives over the past two days,” Oskanian added. “We must keep our position balanced on this issue.”

Oskanian had personally inaugurated the Armenian embassy in Baghdad in February 2001. The minister, accompanied by a large delegation of Armenian businessmen, met with Saddam during the trip, underscoring Armenia’s interest in forging commercial links with the oil-rich Middle Eastern country.

Last July, an Armenian company owned by a pro-Iraqi lawmaker won the right to buy and resell 2 million barrels of Iraqi crude oil under the UN oil-for-food program.

Also, Yerevan has repeatedly expressed concern about the security of Iraq’s Armenian community. Estimates of the number of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq vary from 15,000 to 30,000. The Armenian government anticipates that some of them will seek refuge in Armenia after the start of hostilities.

According to Oskanian, it is now negotiating with the governments of Turkey and Iran, which border on Iraq, on the possibility of opening transit routes for Iraqi Armenian refugees.

“We expect that if the war begins, there will be people among the Iraqi Armenians who would prefer to come to Armenia instead of taking refuge in other countries,” Aghajanian said for her part. “We are now considering simplifying the visa regime and putting in place other conditions for them.”

Aghajanian also denied local press reports that the U.S. has asked Yerevan to allow its military aircraft involved in the Iraq campaign to use Armenia’s airspace and even airports. “The U.S. government has so far not asked us to assist in its military action,” she said.

Speaking to reporters last week, the U.S. ambassador to Yerevan, John Ordway, likewise said that Washington is not seeking any military assistance from Armenia yet. “I’m not sure that air corridors are really appropriate in this situation,” he said. “I don’t think that the geography is such that it’s a factor.”

“But I’m sure if we have any specific requests we will make them and we will hope that the government will give us a very positive response,” Ordway added.

Armenia is only an hour’s flying time from the Turkish-Iraqi border, one of the likely directions of the U.S. assault.

(AP-Photolur photo: British troops are supported by a Puma helicopter during exercises in Kuwait .)
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