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#10 - JRL 7009
Russia denies Saddam exile plans

Russia today categorically denied that it was urging Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to step down and go into exile.

"It is nonsense. No such talks are underway," a "highly placed" source was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS.

"Why should Saddam Hussein flee his country? There are no ground at all for the Iraqi leader to seek political asylum anywhere including Russia," the agency quoted the unnamed official as saying.

Germany's Tageszeitung daily today reported that US and Russian leaders are working over a peace plan that could see Saddam agreeing to go into exile, possibly in Moscow.

Citing Russian and US government and diplomatic sources, it said President Vladimir Putin was preparing a peace initiative to avoid war.

There have been several newspaper reports, including the Financial Times in London, of a possible safe haven for the Iraqi president in Belarus, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania or Russia.

Russian diplomats have been in Baghdad since November taking soundings, the newspaper said.

If Saddam agrees to the plan in principle, Putin would send a senior envoy to sort out the finer details -- or may even go himself.

The newspaper, which has been generally well informed on the Iraqi crisis, said US President George W Bush had asked Putin over Christmas to step up his efforts to persuade Saddam to step down.

Bush is reported to have told Putin that he wanted to avoid a war in Iraq because of the potential economic cost and the escalating crisis over North Korea.

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