The US is opposing a plan, strongly supported by Britain, to enforce an international treaty banning biological weapons, it emerged yesterday.
Officials reviewing America's defence and foreign policies have recommended to President Bush that he should block a protocol on inspection which is attached to the 1972 convention banning the weapons. It would set up an independent international body to carry out both prearranged and random inspections on private drug companies and state agencies.
An American arms control official, Michael Moodie, said: "The protocol is not going to deter proliferations. We still would not be confident that there were not major violations going on."
However, US biotech companies have fiercely opposed the proposal on grounds of commercial confidentiality. US agencies which are spending billions of dollars on "bio-defence" - including vaccines and protective clothing - are also hostile to inspections.
Tibor Toth, a Hungarian diplomat chairing negotiations on biological weapons in Geneva, said in response to the US attitude: "If the world community fails to agree on a protocol to strengthen the ban on biological weapons after six years of talks, it'll send a very unfortunate message."
There are widespread fears that other countries including China, Pakistan, India and Iran, which have already expressed concerns about the protocol inspection plans, will follow any US decision to reject them. America's allies are also worried that it will send the wrong signal to Iraq, which is opposing renewed United Nations inspections of its suspected biological and chemical warfare programme.
Tony Blair urged President Bush to back the protocol during his talks at Camp David in February. America's allies, who are already bitter about its decision to withdraw from the Kyoto treaty on global warming, are likely to apply pressure on Mr Bush during his trip to Europe next month.
The US seized on the former US Russian president Boris Yeltsin's admission in 1992 that the Soviet Union had breached the biological weapons convention as proof that countries will cheat.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001