UNITED NATIONS, June 18: China said on Friday it would abstain on a resolution giving the United States immunity from the new International Criminal Court (ICC), a decision that may leave Washington short of votes to pass the resolution.

"I said to my colleagues we will abstain," Beijing's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, told Reuters after a luncheon among the 15 Security Council members and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Mr Wang said earlier the resolution would send a wrong signal in light of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.

China's abstention could deprive the Bush administration of the nine "yes" votes required to adopt a resolution. So far only Britain, Russia, Angola and the Philippines are considered sure votes in favor.

All other members are contemplating an abstention or are undecided, following a rebuke by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said on Thursday the resolution was "wrong," would "discredit the council" and was of "dubious judicial value."

He said that resolution "would be a very unfortunate signal to send at any time - but particularly at this time."

On Friday Mr Annan distributed a memorandum to council members, "strongly" urging them not to renew the measure.

"The secretary-general believes that extending the exemption once more would contradict the efforts of the United Nations - including the council itself - to promote the rule of law in international affairs," the memorandum said.

The United States, for the third year, is seeking to renew a UN Security Council resolution that would exempt from the court's prosecution military and civilian personnel "related to a UN-authorized operation" such as that in Iraq.

The immunity would be extended to all nations not among the 94 countries that have ratified a treaty establishing the court, set up to prosecute the world's worst atrocities - genocide, mass war crimes and systematic human rights abuses.

"We're going to be coming back to the council by Tuesday with a final plan - with our position in terms of next steps," said US representative Stuart Holliday.

"Our position remains the same," he said. The resolution was first adopted in 2002 after the United States began to veto UN peacekeeping missions.

ABU GHRAIB IMPACT: The United States is investigating the abuse of prisoners by the US military in Iraq, particularly in the large Abu Ghraib jail, and in Afghanistan.

Among the 15 council members, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Benin, Romania and now China are expected to abstain, diplomats said. Pakistan and Algeria were undecided.

The Chinese position is unusual because Beijing has not signed or ratified the court's treaty. Diplomats believe it was also related to disputes with Washington over Taiwan, although Beijing envoys have denied it.

Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali, whose "yes" vote had been considered certain, said his government had not decided.

"Obviously the Americans don't have the nine votes. The secretary-general's statement was quite strong and apparently the Abu Ghraib situation had an impact," said Mr Baali, the only Arab member of the council.

The Bush administration is opposed in principle to an international court having any jurisdiction on American soldiers abroad and has signed 89 bilateral agreements to exempt any American officials.

Based in the Hague, Netherlands, the tribunal is a court of last resort. Analysts say it would not, for example, interfere in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners as long as a country's judicial system probed the allegations.-Reuters

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