By KIM SENGUPTA and KATHY MARKS
SYDNEY - The controversy over alleged British and American "dirty tricks" at the United Nations deepened today with claims that two chiefs of Iraq arms inspection missions had been victims of spying.
Hans Blix and Richard Butler were both said to have been subjected to routine bugging while they led teams searching for Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction.
According to reports, Dr Blix's mobile telephone was monitored every time he went to Iraq, and the transcripts shared among the US, Britain and their allies, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
The new charges come within 24 hours of former cabinet minister Clare Short stating that British intelligence had taped the telephone calls of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The news of the alleged bugging of Dr Blix, in charge of the last crucial UN mission in the run-up to the war, seen as the last chance to avoid war, is being viewed in diplomatic circles as part of a concerted effort to sabotage attempts at a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis.
Dr Blix, who retired in June, is highly critical of George W Bush and Tony Blair for the claims they made about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Washington and London, he maintained, had aborted the search for weapons in order to pave the way for an invasion.
In his reports to the UN Dr Blix, and his fellow inspection team leader Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had asked for more time to investigate Iraq's arsenal, a plea rejected by Washington and London.
The claims of espionage against Dr Blix emerged in the Australian media, sourced to a member of the country's intelligence service.
Yesterday a senior UN source confirmed to the Independent that the Iraq mission, UNMOVIC, were convinced that they were victims of spying operations.
Dr Blix, who retired in June, had said he was aware of the possibility of being a spying target.
"There are rumours in New York that there was bugging and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it had taken place", he said.
"I assumed when I was in New York that I might well have been bugged in my office."
Yesterday, a senior UN official said: "While in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad (the UNMOVIC headquarters at the time) we never used to talk about anything sensitive in our rooms because we thought the Iraqis might be bugging us. We used to go outside to the garden.
"It is one of the ironies of life that back in New York we would sometimes take similar measures, discuss things we thought should be confidential, out of the office, in public places, sometimes the sidewalk.
"The only saving grace is that neither Dr Blix or anyone else among us would speak about sensitive matters on mobile telephones, so they would not have heard anything earth shattering just by that. But I suspect there was other, more widespread, interceptions. There were plenty of attempts to undermine us."
A spokesman for the Australian attorney general, Philip Ruddock, whose office oversee security matters, would only say: "We don't make it a practice of commenting on what we might or might not have seen in relation to intelligence matters."
In London, the Foreign Office said it had no comment to make.
Dr Blix's predecessor, Mr Butler, now the governor of Tasmania, said he was actually shown transcripts of his bugged conversations.
"Those who did it would come to me and show me the recordings that they made on others. 'To try to help me to do my job in disarming Iraq', they would say, 'we're just here to help you'." said Mr Butler.
The former UN chief maintained, however, that it was not only Britain that was spying. He said: "I was utterly confident that in my attempts to have private conversations, trying to solve the problem of disarmament of Iraq, I was being listened to by the Americans, British, the French and the Russians. And they also had people on my staff reporting what I was trying to do privately.
"Do you think that was paranoia? Absolutely not. There was abundant evidence that we were being constantly monitored."
Mr Butler said that he too had to hold sensitive conversations in the noisy cafeteria in the basement of the UN building in New York or in Central Park.
"We were brought to a situation where it was plain silly to think we could have any serious conversation in our office. No one was being paranoid, everyone had a black sense of humour about it.
"I was reduced to having to go either to a noisy cafeteria where there was so much noise around, and then whisper in the hope that we wouldn't be overheard, or literally take a walk in the park. I would take a walk with the person in the park and speak in a low voice and keep moving so we could avoid directional microphones and maybe just have a private conversation."
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a predecessor of Mr Annan as Secretary-General also described the vulnerability of the organisation to espionage.
"From the first day I entered my office they said beware, your office is bugged, your residence is bugged and it is a tradition that the member states who have the technical capacity to bug will do it without any hesitation. That would involve members of the Security Council," he said.
"The perception is that you must know in advance that your office, your residence, your car, your phone is bugged."
As demands grew at both home and abroad for Tony Blair to either confirm or deny Ms Short's highly embarrassing allegations, the British ambassador to the UN, Emyr Jones-Parry, telephoned Mr Annan on Thursday evening.
The UN said Mr Jones-Parry's call has not shed any fresh light on the matter. Edward Mortimer, Mr Annan's director of communications, said: "There was a telephone call which was apologetic in tone but did not really amount to an admission of substance. Basically the answer we got was the same as the Prime Minister gave at his press conference (on Thursday). We are not complete innocents, we do realise these things happen but it was rather a shock to hear...that the British government had been spying on the Secretary-General."
Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Blair should make a statement to MPs on the affair. His call was backed by Labour backbencher John McDonnell. He will table a Commons motion next week demanding to know if there was an "eavesdropping operation" and if so, how extensive it was.
Mr Kennedy said "We need to know whether or not British intelligence took part in spying on the United Nations Secretary-General. This is a serious allegation, made by a member of Mr Blair's cabinet, which cannot go unanswered.
"The United Kingdom was one of the founding members of the UN…the suggestion that our security services were involved in some kind of illegal operation damages our national standing."
Mr Boutros-Ghali said: "This is a violation of the United Nations charter. It complicated the work of the Secretary-General, of the diplomats, because they need a minimum of secrecy to reach a solution."
Mr Butler, who led the UN disarmament team in Iraq in the 1990s, UNSCOM, said he was "well aware" that he himself was being bugged. But he stressed that spying on the UN was illegal and extremely harmful to the peacemaking process.
"What if Kofi Annan had been bringing people together last February in a genuine attempt to prevent the invasion of Iraq, and the people bugging him did not want that to happen, what do you think they would do with that information?"