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UN Iraq envoy was veteran of global conflicts
( 2003-08-20 09:35) (Agencies)

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy on Iraq who was killed by a bomb blast on Tuesday, was a tough but debonair Brazilian who had been dispatched on some of the world body's most difficult missions.

In this May 27, 2003, file photo Secretary-General Kofi Annan (R) introduces U.N. human rights chief Sergio Vieira de Mello as U.N. Special Representative for Iraq at the United Nations in New York.  [Reuters]
Vieira de Mello, 55, was trapped under rubble on Tuesday and died after a suspected suicide bomb blast in Baghdad.

He was no stranger during his 33-year U.N. career to situations where his life, and those of colleagues with him on peace missions around the globe, was at best at risk and at worst in extreme peril.

"The United Nations presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to any who would seek to target our organization," he had told the Security Council in July in a report on the first two months of the challenging mission.

While heading the widely-hailed operation that took East Timor to free elections and full independence in 2002, he kept a notice in his office in Dili, the capital, reading: "Please leave your guns outside."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights since September, Vieira de Mello was the immediate choice of Secretary-General Kofi Annan to take on the Iraqi job in May after the controversial U.S.-British invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

The choice was also approved by Washington, despite clear disapproval among top U.N. officials of the attack on Iraq, after a meeting with President Bush in Washington in March just before the U.S. and British troops went in.

"There is no other person in the U.N. who is handed such tough crises," said Salim Lone, the U.N. spokesman in Baghdad. "Sergio Vieira de Mello was one great person who was here to try to bring an end to the tragedy of Iraq forever."


Vieira de Mello, whose film-star looks and natural charm had made him one of the U.N.'s most widely recognized officials, insisted his Iraq assignment be for just four months so he could hold on to the human rights post in Geneva.

After arriving in Baghdad, he had quickly established an authoritative presence and won the respect of U.S. Iraq administrator Paul Bremer despite tension between Washington and the U.N. Secretariat over the Iraq war.

"He could deal with kings and diplomats and ordinary refugees with the same enthusiasm and sense of respect," said Nancy Soderberg, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Vieira de Mello, said his deputy as human rights commissioner Bertrand Ramcharand, "was one of the finest performers in the U.N."

Diplomats say he was among front-runners to succeed the secretary-general.

Vieira de Mello, born in Rio de Janeiro, started work in the U.N. system in 1969 as a junior publications editor with the UNHCR refugee agency in Geneva. But he soon came to grips with the problems of countries shattered by war.

For over two decades with the UNHCR and on secondment, he served as a field officer in a devastated Bangladesh after its war of separation from Pakistan, and in civil war zones in Sudan, Mozambique and Lebanon.

Moving up through the ranks of the UNHCR, he was consigned to desk jobs running relief operations from Geneva during much of the 1980s -- including crises in the Great Lakes region of central Africa and the exodus of Albanians from the country after the collapse of communism in 1991.

In 1993, he was dispatched to Bosnia as a war raged between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and took charge of civil affairs for the U.N. Protection Force, and in 1996 became Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees.

Two years later, Annan took him to New York to become Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and then sent him briefly to the Serbian province of Kosovo before giving him his biggest task -- building the new Asian nation of East Timor.

The tennis-loving Vieira de Mello stomped the country, which had been left an economic and social wreck after the violence that accompanied Indonesian withdrawal, and played a vital role in bringing it to full independence by 2002.

Vieira de Mello was married but separated from his wife, and is survived by two sons.

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