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Putin taunts Blair: Is Saddam sitting in a bunker ready to blow the whole place up with WMD?

From Rosemary Bennett and Robin Shepherd in Moscow

PRESIDENT Putin scuppered Tony Blair’s efforts to repair Anglo-Russian relations after the Iraq war by challenging him and President Bush to uncover weapons of mass destruction to justify the conflict.

The Prime Minister suffered a second blow from the anti-war axis when France and Germany backed plans for a European defence force independent of Nato.

At a summit in Brussels, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg agreed to set up a “multinational force HQ for non-Nato operations”. British officials said they were baffled by the move, and Mr Blair made clear his opposition to any initiative that would undermine the alliance.

Speaking at the end of what was supposed to be a fence-mending meeting with Mr Blair in Moscow, Mr Putin mocked the coalition’s failure to find any biological or nuclear weapons. He said UN oil sanctions should not be lifted until they came to light.

Mr Putin reminded the grim-faced Prime Minister that the only reason he went to war was to eliminate the danger posed by Saddam’s weapons programme.

“Two weeks later they still have not been found,” he told a press conference. “The question is, where is Saddam Hussein? Where are those weapons of mass destruction, if they were ever in existence? Is Saddam Hussein in a bunker sitting on cases containing weapons of mass destruction, preparing to blow the whole place up?”

Mr Putin said that the international community had to draw a line under the row over war in Iraq by allowing UN weapons inspectors back in.

Mr Putin insisted that the UN Oil-For-Food programme, of which Russia is a prime beneficiary, should be renewed instead of lifting sanctions completely. The US and Britain are seeking a rapid end to the oil sanctions to help to finance Iraq’s reconstruction.

Mr Putin also questioned Mr Blair’s vision of a new strategic alliance between the US, Europe and Russia, saying it would not work if the White House made all the decisions.

Mr Putin launched his surprise attack after talks in the presidential residence just outside Moscow.

Mr Blair had hoped to use the one-day trip to persuade Mr Putin to join forces with America and Britain and heal divisions over Iraq. He said on Monday that failure to form a new strategic alliance could result in two rival camps emerging, reviving the tensions and divisions of the Cold War era.

After listening to Mr Putin’s attack, he admitted that the past few months had been very difficult but said the international community had to find a way forward. “The stand-off of the last few months is in no one’s interest — not Europe’s, not Britain’s and not Russia’s,” he said.

He said it was possible to create a two-way process where the US would listen to concerns on the Middle East peace process, global poverty and development while other countries helped the US with its War on Terror and weapons of mass destruction.

He said that the first crucial test for the international community was to agree on a role for the UN in post-conflict Iraq.

Mr Blair appeared shaken by Mr Putin’s tirade. At one point he interrupted his interpreter to make the point that the bickering had to stop: “The kind of stand-off we’ve had in the last few months, in the end, is in no one’s interests.  That is why we need to find a way through. To make that partnership real,” he said.

Diplomats said the meeting appeared to have achieved so little they wondered why the two leaders had met in the first place. “They got nowhere and only showed just how far apart they are,” one said.

This was the second successive summit at which Mr Putin had publicly embarrassed Mr Blair. Last October, when they met at Mr Putin’s official dacha outside Moscow, he dismissed a Downing Street dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as propaganda. Downing Street sources said Mr Blair was angered by his advisers’ failure to warn him about how strongly Mr Putin felt about Iraq.

Analysts say that Russia has been let off relatively lightly by the United States because of its pivotal role in the War on Terror, its massive oil reserves and its huge nuclear arsenal.