UNITED NATIONS -- Iraqi authorities Monday detained U.N. inspectors who found documents showing that the Baghdad government has a nuclear weapons program and released them shortly afterwards, but without the papers, U.S. and U.N. officials said.
U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering called the detention of the U.N. inspectors a 'serious incident,' and he accused Baghdad of disregarding a Security Council demand for unconditional movement by U. N. inspectors throughout the Iraqi territory.
The government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has rejected a U.N. demand that its inspectors be permitted to use helicopters to make unimpeded flights over Iraqi territory in search of nuclear, chemical and biological arms or weapons development sites.
These weapons must be destroyed under the terms of a Security Council cease-fire resolution in the Persian Gulf War.
The group of more than 50 U.N. inspectors arrived in Baghdad Sunday and on Monday toured a government building suspected of holding sensitive military documents, according to Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish nuclear expert in charge of the U.N. inspection teams.
The team was about to remove from a government building documents revealing Iraqi nuclear programs when they were detained by Iraqi authorities, Ekeus said. He said he was briefly able to discuss the situation with the inspectors, but communication lines were cut several times.
In Washington, a State Department official who requested anonymity said the inspectors were released about five hours later but were not permitted to take the documents with them. However, the official said Iraq promised to relinquish the documents on Tuesday.
The State Department official said, 'The documents show evidence that Iraq was engaged in a substantial nuclear weapons development program.' He said he did not know if they showed Iraq was still conducting nuclear weapons research.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there were 'several carloads' of documents relating to Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
Ekeus said the inspectors had been urged not to let go of the documents they found unless their lives were threatened. He said the documents should be taken out of Iraq and analyzed by U.N. nuclear experts and then destroyed as part of the Iraqi nuclear weapons development program.
'This is a very serious and grave problem,' Pickering said after a private meeting of Security Council members. 'We want unconditional acceptance of (Security Council) Resolution 707,' which authorized U.N. inspectors to move freely in Iraq to carry out their work.
The president of the council, FrenchAmbassador Jean-Bernard Merimee, issued a statement describing as unacceptable the answer he received from Iraqi Foreign Minister Ahmed Hussein on Sunday in which Hussein apparently continued to reject the U.N. demand for helicopter overflight.
The United States is prepared to offer military escorts for helicopter flights of U.N. inspectors with 48-hour notice in the event Saddam refused to grant full and unfettered access to the U.N. teams.
U.S. officials withheld any decision on unilateral action as the Security Council mulled a formal U.N. response.
Merimee said U.N. inspectors, who entered a building in Baghdad on 'short notice' Monday morning, found a 'substantial amount of documentation related to Iraq's nuclear activities, (including) Iraq's fissible nuclear program and nuclear weapons.'
Merimee said the inspectors' exit from the building was blocked by Iraqi authorities.
In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Bush condemned Iraq's treatment of the inspectors in Monday's incident and its refusal to permit helicopter overflights of its territory by other U.N. teams searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Vowing to keep U.N. sanctions in place against Iraq as long as Saddam remains in power, Bush said the latest confrontation 'shows that we cannot compromise at all in seeing that Iraq destroys all of its weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.'
And, he added, 'We will not not compromise.'
Earlier, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged to reporters that U.S. officials were 'more pessimistic than we were' just days before on whether Saddam would capitulate and grant a free hand to U.N. inspectors.
'It doesn't appear that Saddam's recognized the seriousness of the situation,' Fitzwater said.