U.S. Views Libya Crisis as Fading : Says Industrial Nations Stymie Poison Gas Bid

Times Staff Writer

In what the Reagan Administration portrayed as a success for its hard-line approach to Libya, officials said Wednesday that industrial nations now are moving to stymie Col. Moammar Kadafi’s effort to become a major producer of poison gas.

It was unclear whether the allies and other industrial nations are responding to American diplomatic appeals or to apprehension about the consequences of a U.S.-Libya confrontation. But one U.S. official said that foreign governments have begun “doing what they can to complement our efforts in slowing it down.”

Reports From Bonn

Officials hailed reports from Bonn on Wednesday that Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government has secured evidence that West German firms helped build the Libyan plant. The development seemed to defuse a Washington-Bonn controversy over U.S. intelligence--initially challenged by West Germany--linking German firms to the project.


And State Department spokesman Charles Redman praised the West German government for steps, announced Tuesday, to tighten export controls on chemical and nuclear technology.

An Administration official, noting increased concern abroad that Libya would produce chemical weapons for use by terrorists, said it is still too early to declare an American victory in the confrontation with Libya but the crisis seems to have passed.

He said that Washington never “closes the option” of military action but that it is now highly unlikely that the United States would try to bomb the plant, situated in the desert community of Rabta.

Another U.S. official admitted that the Administration had little choice but to dampen the confrontation because of the negative nature of world reaction to the downing by two U.S. Navy jets of a pair of Libyan warplanes last week. U.S. allies either criticized the U.S. action or offered only tepid support, and the Soviet Union reacted with genuine anger, warning that the incident could jeopardize recent improvements in the Washington-Moscow relationship.

“The air has gone out of the balloon,” the American official said.

Also, U.S. allies were unanimous in urging the United States to use only peaceful measures in trying to neutralize the Libyan plant. For instance, Canadian External Affairs Minister Joe Clark told reporters after a meeting with Secretary of State George P. Shultz last week that Canada agrees with the United States on the nature of the Libyan project, but he added quickly that his country opposes military action.

In discussing increased cooperation from other governments, Redman said: “The plant is not yet in production, and . . . for it to make that step, outside expertise (and) equipment is going to be required.”

Asked if the industrial world could prevent the plant from ever opening by blocking Libya’s access to modern technology, Redman replied with one word: “Yes.”

“We appreciate the cooperation and the efforts of the German government, as well as the other governments, in investigating the possible involvement of their firms in the Libyan project,” he said.

U.S. officials have said that firms from Japan, Italy, Switzerland and some other countries, in addition to West Germany, played roles in the construction of the chemical complex. Kadafi says it is intended to produce pharmaceuticals, but the United States has branded the complex as the largest chemical weapons plant in the Third World.

Administration officials Wednesday declined to name the countries other than West Germany that have taken action to block the Libyan project. But the officials here said they are satisfied with the response across the board.

There is no way to be sure whether other governments decided to take action because they were persuaded by American arguments or because they wanted to prevent the crisis from escalating to military action. Similarly, there is no way to know for certain whether the Administration pulled back from confrontation because it already had achieved its objective through diplomatic means or because it concluded that it had too little support for such action.

A State Department official said that the Soviet government in recent years has expressed concern about the spread of chemical weapons. This led U.S. officials to believe that Moscow would give tacit approval to any U.S. action to make sure that the Libyan plant would not go into production.

However, Moscow’s angry reaction to the downing of the two Libyan jets caused U.S. officials to reassess that view.

Times staff writer Robin Wright also contributed to this article.