Saturday, January 3, 2004

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya was much closer to developing a nuclear bomb than was detected by United Nations inspection teams allowed into the country last week, said British officials who have visited the country’s secret weapons laboratories.

They also believe that Libya has stockpiles of the ingredients for chemical weapons and the shells and bombs to deliver them.

Though Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, does not have biological weapons, Libya does have dual-use technologies to make them, British and American officials have concluded. Libya has declared it will halt these weapons programs.

“We saw uranium enrichment going ahead. We were satisfied that they were well on the way to developing a weapon,” said one unidentified senior British official. “Libya was third on our list of concern after North Korea and Iran.”

That comment contradicted the assessment by Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on his first visit to Libya last week. At one Libyan nuclear facility, for instance, Mr. ElBaradei said that his U.N. team had found all the equipment “still in boxes.”

“They were still a few years away from developing a nuclear weapon,” he said. “This is a program at an early stage of development. They have not enriched any uranium, to our knowledge. They have not built any industrial-scale facility. It was all at the pilot laboratory scale.”

The IAEA inspectors were taken to only four sites near Tripoli during a daylong tour. The British and American experts saw many more, spending three weeks in Libya in October and December as part of secret negotiations with Col. Gadhafi’s regime.

The search is now under way to find the supplier of components for the nuclear program. British and American concern is focused on an unidentified third country, which has supplied both Libya and Iran — possibly North Korea.

An unidentified senior British official with knowledge of the secret Anglo-American inspections was confident that Libya in time would reveal to the IAEA inspectors the full extent of its clandestine nuclear program.

“At first, there were quite a lot of moments when we felt they were not being fully frank, but trust has grown,” the official said. “This was a decision some time in the making. Some years ago, Col. Gadhafi realized that he was taking Libya the wrong way.”

The reassessment is said to have gained momentum since the September 11, 2001, terrorism attacks — and particularly after the invasion of Iraq. The secret diplomacy began in March with an approach from Libya, just as American and British tanks were about to roll into Iraq.

Libya’s concerns became clear during a visit by the British Foreign Office minister, Mike O’Brien, earlier this year. A senior Libyan official anxiously took him aside to ask if countries that gave up their weapons of mass destruction would still be “punished like Saddam Hussein.”

“Mike O’Brien was able to reassure them that they would not be punished,” the British official said.

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