Ukraine Sites Checked in Iraq Probe

KIEV -- U.S. and British experts fanned out across Ukraine on Wednesday, inspecting its main arms producer, other large military plants and holding talks to investigate charges the country's administration sold Iraq an early warning system.

As an appeal court judge gathered documents to support his bid to investigate corruption charges against President Leonid Kuchma, the experts said they were pressing their inquiries over whether the Kolchuga aircraft detection system was in Iraq.

The 13 experts, who arrived Sunday, are investigating U.S. charges that Kuchma approved the sale of the Kolchuga, which detects and tracks aircraft without giving itself away and could complicate any U.S.-led military action against Baghdad.

"We cannot say at this point. We are in the middle of our meetings," Alan Van Egmond, the leader of the experts, said when asked about the state of the investigation.

Asked whether officials were being open, he replied, "We have had a very active schedule of discussions and meetings."

Officials in eastern Ukraine said two groups of experts had arrived; one to investigate the Topaz plant, which produces Kolchuga in Donetsk and another to visit Kharkiv, which is home to the country's largest plants producing tanks and other military equipment.

"The experts have arrived and are working," said Oleksander Kashnikov, head of the special construction department in the Donetsk regional administration.

The experts have given no details of their program, saying there was no deadline to check the claims, based on tapes made by Kuchma's former bodyguard in which the president is apparently heard giving the go-ahead to the sale.

Kuchma has denied he sold the system to Iraq, and Ukrainian officials have cast doubt on the tapes, saying the copies they checked were edited.

But the suspension of some financial aid by Washington and the arrival of the inspectors has put Kuchma under heightened pressure.

Kuchma also has hanging over him a court appeal for a wide-ranging investigation into corruption charges.

On Tuesday, a judge at the Kiev appeals court said he had ordered prosecutors to open a criminal probe into Kuchma's activities, the first legal challenge to the 64-year-old leader.

After prosecutors refused to launch an investigation, the Supreme Court on Wednesday sent the appeal back to the court asking for further documentation to support the charges.

 European Union leaders told Ukraine on Wednesday it stands no chance of becoming a member until it respects common values of democracy, press freedom and arms control.

"We are talking now about the standards which are necessary to be part of the European family," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told reporters at a conference in Warsaw. "Ukraine has to have the structures that will allow it to get as close as possible to the European Union."

Some delegates agreed that there was a long way to go.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko referred to the murder of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was found in November 2000. Recordings released by a former presidential bodyguard implicate Kuchma in the case.

"Two years ago a journalist was killed; today we are killing the entire journalistic profession. Who would want to accept us in Europe with such standards?" Yushchenko said.