WASHINGTON, Dec 2: President George W. Bush said on Thursday that a "full and fair and open" probe into the scandal-plagued UN oil-for-food scheme was critical if US taxpayers are to feel good about supporting the world body.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Bush did not sign on to a prominent US lawmaker's call for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to resign - nor did he distance himself from that demand.

"It's important for the integrity of the organization to have a full and open disclosure of all that took place with the oil-for-food program," Bush said as he met with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

"It's very important for the United Nations to understand that there ought to be a full and fair and open accounting of the oil-for-food program. In order for the taxpayers of the United States to feel comfortable about supporting the United Nations, there has to be an open accounting," said Bush.

"I look forward to the full disclosure of the facts, (and to getting an) honest appraisal of that which went on," he said. Senator Norm Coleman, the Republican chairman of the Senate investigations subcommittee that is conducting its own probe of the oil-for-food programme, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that Annan should step down because of fraud that occurred "on his watch."

"It's time for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to resign," Coleman wrote. "I have arrived at this conclusion because the most extensive fraud in the history of the UN occurred on his watch."

"As long as Mr Annan remains in charge, the world will never be able to learn the full extent of the bribes, kickbacks and under-the-table payments that took place under the UN's collective nose," he said.

The oil-for-food programme, launched in December 1996 and terminated in November 2003, was intended to ease the effects on Iraqis of the international sanctions imposed on the regime of Saddam Hussein. But US congressional investigators say Saddam's regime may have skimmed billions of dollars from the programme, and allegations have surfaced of payoffs to officials and private individuals from around the globe.-AFP

Our correspondent in New York adds: United Nations member states on Wednesday rallied behind beleaguered Secretary General Kofi Annan over the right wing US media's calls for his resignation.

The Republicans are angry with Secretary General for having termed Iraq war "illegal" and for writing to US President Bush to refrain from attacking Fallujah late in November,

Us State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the State Department believed that Congress had a right to investigate. But he added that Mr Annan "had been working positively and cooperatively" in trying to find out what happened.

Meanwhile, at the world body the UN chief has wide support among the 191 UN member states who elected him to a second five-year term in 2001. Russia, Britain, Chile, Spain and other nations on the UN Security Council strongly backed Annan in recent days, as did non-Council members. The 54 African nations sent a letter of support.

At a meeting with Mr Annan on the UN reforms report, the ambassadors of Argentina, Algeria, Colombia, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, Spain and Turkey expressed strong support for Mr Annan.

Spain's UN ambassador, Juan Antonio Yanez Barnuevo, told reporters the group had mentioned "unfair and unwarranted attacks" against Mr Annan, who was an "inspiration to us all".

Some 3,000 UN staff have signed an e-mail letter saying many of the accusations against the world body were "made without full knowledge of the facts". On Wednesday Mr Annan urged Wall Street financiers to support the global campaign against AIDS.

He was also preparing for Thursday's launch of a report by a high-level panel recommending the most extensive reform of the United Nations since its founding in 1945. The allegations of corruption in the oil-for-food program, which first surfaced in January, have escalated, embarrassing Mr Annan and taking the spotlight off his agenda.

On Monday, Annan said he was "very disappointed and surprised" that his son Kojo received payments until February 2004 from a firm that had a contract with the oil-for-food program. The Swiss-based firm Cotecna Inspection S. A., said Kojo Annan was paid $2,500 a month to prevent him from working for competitors after he left the company in 1998.

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