U.S. Pressing Allies on Libya Chemical Plant
The U.S. government, in an attempt to prove to its European allies that Libya has constructed a chemical weapons plant, has shown satellite and air reconnaissance photos to officials in a number of capitals, West European sources disclosed Monday.
However, the sources said, the Europeans do not consider the evidence conclusive proof that the complex shown in the photos is used for making chemical weapons.
In Washington, a State Department official confirmed that the Reagan Administration has stepped up a concerted campaign to persuade other governments that Libya should be prevented from operating the huge plant at Rabta, about 40 miles south of the capital of Tripoli.
“The U.S. government has made a decision that this stuff has gone on too far,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "(Libyan leader Moammar) Kadafi is on the verge of opening the Third World’s largest chemical weapons plant. We think he should be stopped.”
At the same time, the Bonn government said Monday that it has no evidence to support media reports that a West German pharmaceutical firm, Imhausen-Chemie, has secretly been involved in the construction of the plant at Rabta.
Nevertheless, “we are taking the matter very seriously,” said a source at the West German Foreign Ministry. “The evidence is being checked.”
According to the U.S. source, high-ranking officials in more than a dozen foreign countries have recently been visited by U.S. briefing teams, which have presented evidence that the heavily fortified plant is designed to produce nerve and mustard gas.
He said the evidence includes intelligence on the thickness of the plant’s walls--designed, apparently, to contain accidental explosions--and even the configuration of its sewers.
Kadafi has maintained that the plant is designed to make pharmaceuticals, not weapons.
Last week, when asked whether he was considering military action against Libya, President Reagan would not rule out an air strike on the Rabta complex.
But the U.S. official said the briefings have not included any discussion of possible U.S. military action against the plant.
The U.S. diplomatic campaign is aimed in part at rallying allied governments toward a stronger stand at an international conference on chemical weapons to be held later this week in Paris, the official said.
It also reflects a more general fear by Administration officials that the long U.S. campaign to isolate Kadafi diplomatically has been running out of steam, he said.
“One of the things we’re worried about is that some countries in Europe think that Libya’s got a new face because Kadafi is trying to look more humane--and because they want to sell their products there,” he said.
The European sources gave no details on the physical evidence provided by the Americans, and there was no confirmation from Washington of the use of surveillance photos.
Asked about reports that West German officials were skeptical of the U.S. intelligence, the State Department official said: “They didn’t seem unconvinced to the interagency team last month.”
Robert M. Gates, former deputy director of the CIA, who has been nominated as deputy director of the National Security Council in the incoming Bush Administration, called attention to the Rabta plant in a recent speech. Accusing the Libyans of setting up a chemical warfare facility, he said the plant was built with the help of “nearly a dozen nations, East and West,” but he did not name any.
While U.S. government sources have been hinting at a “surgical strike” to destroy the plant, most observers believe that the Reagan Administration would not move against Libya on its own, at least not until after the upcoming international conference on chemical weapons.
In April, 1986, carrier-based U.S. Navy warplanes from the Mediterranean and U.S. Air Force planes based in England struck military sites in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 37 Libyans. Washington said the attacks were in retaliation for a terrorist bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that left two U.S. servicemen and a Turkish woman dead.
Kadafi has offered Washington the chance to make a one-time on-site inspection of the complex, but it was rejected by the State Department on the grounds that a single check would not be conclusive.
That U.S. response left many European officials puzzled. “I can’t understand why the Americans would not take the opportunity to inspect the place,” said one West German observer. “They could learn plenty about the plant if they did.”
But the State Department official said that one reason the Administration turned down the inspection offer was the fact that such a plant could serve different purposes.
“A plant like this could be configured for pesticides, insecticides, even pharmaceuticals, but the main purpose appears to be nerve gas and other chemical weapons,” he said.
“You can set it up so it looks like a pharmaceutical plant. But within 12 to 24 hours a plant can have certain valves and piping changed, and unless you know what a chemical weapon plant looks like, you could be fooled,” he said.
In West Germany, meanwhile, Bonn authorities said they are looking at export licenses from Imhausen-Chemie to see whether the company’s foreign trade applications are in order.
The head of Imhausen-Chemie denied a report in the New York Times that his company was involved in the construction of the Libyan plant.
The newspaper’s Sunday report cited U.S. Administration sources as concluding that the West German firm played a major role in the plant’s construction--operating in a roundabout way with supplies being shipped to Libya via Hong Kong and other Asian ports.
In a radio interview Monday, Juergen Hippenstiel-Imhausen, the head of the pharmaceutical firm, declared: “We have nothing to do with this project. We don’t have the know-how to build chemical weapons, and we wouldn’t do so anyway, as we are a serious company.
“My firm has been the object of a smear campaign from U.S. rivals.”
Hippenstiel-Imhausen said that he had made contacts with Libyan officials in a bid to produce polyethylene sheeting but had not been in the North African country since 1980.
U.S. officials said Reagan raised the issue of the new Rabta plant with Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the West German leader’s visit to Washington in November. Afterward, U.S. officials showed the satellite photos of the plant to West German authorities, the European sources said.
Before and after the 1986 air raids on Libya, U.S. officials showed European allies evidence of what Washington called Libyan involvement in the bombing of the West Berlin disco. However, many European officials said they found the evidence less than convincing. And subsequent reports have suggested a Syrian, rather than Libyan, role in the terrorist incident.
Also Monday, the state prosecutor’s office in Darmstadt said that an investigation is continuing into charges that a dozen West German companies supplied materials to Iraq that could be used for chemical warfare.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this story.