- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

TRIPOLI, Libya — The U.N. nuclear chief said yesterday that his visits to four once-secret nuclear sites proved that Libya was in the early stages of a weapons program before it dismantled its efforts.

Mohamed ElBaradei and a team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found equipment had been taken apart and boxed up at the sites in the capital, Tripoli.

An IAEA official said Mr. ElBaradei’s team found that Libya’s program was “years away from a nuclear weapon.”

“There wasn’t any weaponization,” the official said.

The United States, which thinks Libya’s weapons programs are more extensive than the U.N. agency presumes, will send its own experts to help dismantle the programs, a senior Bush administration official said yesterday. The CIA and British intelligence think there are 11 sites in Libya connected to weapons work, the official said.

The inspections came after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s admission that his country had been seeking to produce weapons of mass destruction and his decision to abandon the program. Iran also has allowed IAEA inspections of its facilities, though it insists that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. So far, the IAEA has said it has no evidence that Tehran was producing weapons — though parts of Iran’s program were kept secret for years, raising suspicions in the United States and elsewhere.

As signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Libya and Iran are required to declare all sensitive nuclear installations to the United Nations.

Mr. ElBaradei said Libya’s cooperation could help bring the issue of the country’s nuclear program to a close “in the next few months,” and he called on North Korea — locked in a nuclear standoff with the United States — to follow Libya’s example.

Mr. ElBaradei said Libya’s equipment and technology had come from a “sophisticated network” or “cartel” operating in several countries — though “not necessarily with the knowledge of a particular country or countries.”

He said the origins of Libya’s materials would be identified easily, “as they were of a familiar design.”

“What we have seen is a program in the very initial stages of development,” Mr. ElBaradei told reporters. “We haven’t seen any industrial-scale facility to produce highly enriched uranium. We haven’t seen any enriched uranium” — the material needed for developing nuclear weapons.

The IAEA official speaking on the condition of anonymity said the inspectors found Libya had built “a pilot-scale centrifuge cascade and uranium-conversion unit.” Such equipment would be used to enrich uranium on an experimental scale.

Mr. ElBaradei, who was to leave Libya later in the day, met with Col. Gadhafi, Libyan Prime Minister Shokri Ghanem and Matouq Mohammed Matouq, a deputy prime minister who heads the country’s nuclear program, to develop a plan for future inspections. Six inspectors will remain until Thursday.

Libya has promised full transparency and cooperation with the IAEA and said it would sign a protocol allowing wide-ranging inspections on short notice.

Col. Gadhafi said he hoped Libya’s action would pressure Israel to disarm. Israel, the only Middle Eastern nation thought to possess nuclear arms, refuses to confirm or deny a weapons program.

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