July 2, 2009 / 10:07 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Spaniard knocked out at start of IAEA leader vote

VIENNA, July 2 (Reuters) - A Spanish nuclear power expert was knocked out in an initial round of voting for a new chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday, narrowing the field to two IAEA diplomats, officials said.

Japanese Yukiya Amano established himself as front-runner but failed to score the 2/3 majority required for victory in the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors but his chances will improve with Spain’s Luis Echavarri eliminated.

Amano, Japan’s ambassador to the Vienna-based IAEA, took 20 votes, his South African counterpart Abdul Samad Minty 10 votes with Echavarri, who heads the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s nuclear branch, getting five.

The board was to proceed with up to six further rounds of balloting in the closed-door gathering, if needed, to produce a successor to Director-General and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who retires in November after 12 years in office.

But many diplomats were doubtful that Amano or South African rival Abdul Samad Minty would be able to muster a decisive majority because their support was split along lines of rich and poor nations who disagree on future IAEA priorities.

IAEA governors have struggled to agree on a new chief to tackle the spread of nuclear arms capability, with North Korea and Iran atop its list of concerns, and help developing nations establish atomic energy programmes without proliferation risks.

Two other European candidates, Jean-Pol Poncelet, a Belgian executive at the French nuclear group Areva CEPFi.PA, and former Slovenian IAEA envoy Ernest Petric quit the race this week after getting no support in a straw poll last month.

A first attempt to elect a new IAEA chief stalled in March when Amano fell a single vote short of the 24 needed. Amano remained favourite but his backing slid to 20 in the test poll.

Russia has told other board members that it will be “unacceptable” if Amano is elected by only the minimum winning margin, the EU diplomat said, as this would harden a North-South split undermining the next IAEA chief’s authority.

Amano has drawn his support largely from industrialised countries and Minty from developing states, while Echavarri tried in vain to profile himself as a bridging candidate and take a critical mass of votes from both camps.

“I see a deadlock as the most likely (outcome). Unless Amano can pull something very big out of the hat,” another EU diplomat said on the eve of Thursday’s election. “The Minty camp is in reality a ‘block-Amano’ camp, so I don’t see them shifting.”

Rich countries want the IAEA to get tougher on cases of suspected nuclear proliferation such as Iran and Syria. Poor nations want more time and resources devoted to providing them with sensitive nuclear technology for peaceful uses.

additional reporting by Sylvia Westall, editing by Elizabeth Fullerton

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