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(photo credit: AP)
A veteran Japanese diplomat emerged as the favorite to succeed Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the UN nuclear agency, as most agency board member nations backed him against four other candidates in an informal poll Tuesday.
Yukiya Amano received 20 votes from the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board, diplomats inside the closed meeting said.
South Africa's Abdul Sabad Minty was second with 11 votes in the nonbinding poll, while Spain's Luis Echavarri was third with four ballots, the diplomats said.
There was no support for Belgiun candidate Jean-Pol Poncelet or for Ernest Petric of Slovenia. The diplomats demanded anonymity for divulging the confidential results.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei steps down in November, and agency members participated in Tuesday's "straw poll" to narrow the field of possible replacements before they hold a formal vote, likely on July 2.
A previous vote in March failed to produce the needed two-thirds consensus on appointing either Amano or Minty. Echavarri, Poncelet and Petric then joined the race.
Amano is generally endorsed by Western nations, while Minty has backing from developing countries - a split that led to the deadlock in March.
The Slovene candidate Petric warned agency members that keeping Minty and Amano as front-runners could lead to a repeat of the stalemate in July.
"We are probably once again exactly where we were - two groups," Petric told reporters as he left the closed meeting.
Petric indicated he would probably drop out of the race. The four other candidates did not comment on whether they would stay in the running.
Amano led throughout six rounds of March voting over two days, in one instance falling short of the 24-vote threshold by only a single ballot.
But he failed to win support from developing nations, most of whom endorsed Minty.
Diplomats said Tuesday's informal ballot reflected continued North-South divisions, indicating those who voted for Echavarri would back Minty in a two-way race against the Japanese candidate. That result would still give Amano the needed majority for the post.
The split vote reflects the deep divide between Western nations, including the United States, and developing countries that accuse the West of being indifferent to the problems of poorer countries.
The two sides have also faced off over the issue of Iran's refusal to freeze uranium enrichment.
Representatives of some developing nations have privately said they share Western fears that Iran may seek to use enrichment to develop weapons. But as a bloc, they tend to support Iran's argument that it has a right to an enrichment program for generating energy.
The UN agency's board will again discuss Iran when it meets on Monday.
Washington has said it wants the agency's new chief to be sympathetic to US concerns, though the Obama administration has said it is ready to break with its predecessor and talk directly to Iran over the nuclear impasse.
The West had viewed Elbaradei as sometimes challenging its arguments and concerns. In 2005, Washington tried unsuccessfully to block the Egyptian's appointment to another four-year term.
Without publicly saying so, the US and its allies had made clear before Tuesday's voting that they favored Amano and saw him as someone who would manage the IAEA without thrusting himself into the political fray.
Minty, by contrast, has been seen as more likely to be critical of Western policies if he felt it was the right thing to do.