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Poisonous projects.

When the Rabta pharmaceuticals plant was exposed as a military facility in 1990, Colonel Gaddafi was denied the primary chemicals he needed to pursue his non-conventional weapons programme.

CONCERTED ACTION by Britain and other Western powers has blocked an attempt by Libya to obtain specialised reactor vessels destined for a hitherto unreported project to manufacture chemicals for poison gas production.

The eight stainless steel vessels, complete with stirrers, are presently stranded in Singapore. Valued at |pounds~500,000, they were made by a British-owned Malaysian company which had no idea of the use to which the reactors would be put and which has co-operated closely with the moves to thwart the Libyan operations.

The affair began in 1991 when a Malaysian firm, Pacific Wide, approached APV Hill & Mills, a local company specialising in the production of industrial mixing equipment. Pacific Wide wanted to know whether APV could produce some high specification equipment for use in the production of chemicals used in the drilling of oil wells. Subsequently, the Malaysian firm provided a certificate identifying a Libyan concern, the Jamahiriya National Company for Oil Well Fluids and Equipment (JOWFE), as the end-user, and an order was placed.

In Western capitals, the Libyan move set alarm bells ringing. With the help of German companies, Colonel Gaddafi in the 1980s had built a chemical warfare plant at Rabta, near Tripoli, which he claimed was an innocent pharmaceuticals plant. The so-called precursor chemicals needed as raw materials for the plant had been obtained with relative ease on the open market.

Although some limited production was achieved at Rabta, its exposure as a chemical weapons plant and the prosecution of the key supplier companies severely hampered operations. As a result, the Libyans resolved to build an entirely new gas factory at a site near Tarhuna, 50kms south east of Tripoli. Work on this is now under way.

Following the revelations of how Western companies helped Iraq's non-conventional weapons projects, export controls have been tightened, making precursor chemicals far harder to acquire. As a result, Libya has also launched a project to build its own precursor production plant.

This facility - for which the Malaysian-built vessels were destined - will be an extension to the existing Liquid Petroleum Products (LPP) plant near the north eastern town of Benghazi. The LPP plant produces so-called "drilling mud" for the oil industry but its present capacity is sufficient for Libya's present and likely future requirements.

In reality, the planned extension will comprise a series of units for the production of key precursor chemicals for the Tarhuna plant. These include pinacolyl alcohol, an essential ingredient of the nerve agent soman. Only four countries produce pinacolyl alcohol and all rigorously control its export.

Other intended products of the LPP extension include phosphorus trichloride, a key nerve agent precursor, and thionyl chloride and sodium sulphide, both needed to produce the mustard gas precursor thiodiglycol.

What attracted Western official interest in the Malaysian order was that the reactor vessels, complete with stirrers, were of a far higher quality than would be needed for the processing of drilling mud. Simple mild steel reactors, bought off-the-shelf would have been adequate for the job, and far cheaper.

Also of interest was the ultimate customer, the Libyan company JOWFE. This was already known as a key player in the procurement of materials and equipment for Tripoli's chemical weapons programme. In 1990 JOWFE had tried to obtain identical stainless steel vessels from Britain.

APV Hill & Mills is owned by London-based APV plc, a multinational engineering group whose 1992 turnover was about |pounds~900m. APV's chairman, Sir Peter Cazalet, said that the official fears over the contract were expressed to the company last autumn by the Department of Trade and Industry. As a result, APV instructed its Malaysian subsidiary that "no shipment was to be made without our formal, written approval."

At the same time, Britain, the United States, Australia and others pressed Malaysia to block the export as a breach of the UN sanctions banning the supply of military equipment to Libya.

On 3 February the freighter Seng Leong sailed from Port Klang with the reactors on board. Two days later it arrived in Singapore where the mixer units were discharged for on-shipment to Benghazi. The plan was for them to be carried there by the Liberian-registered Lady Jane, which was scheduled to arrive in Singapore on 10 March.

In a final bid to stop the shipment, London formally applied to the UN for a ruling that the delivery would be a breach of the sanctions imposed last April following Colonel Gaddafi's refusal to hand over for trial two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing. On 3 March - as the Seng Leong was leaving Malaysia - the committee declared that the reactors should be blocked. The Singapore government did not delay and detained the shipment.

A Foreign Office spokesman said that "with the assistance of APV, the international community has succeeded in stopping a potentially dangerous export." The affair had "demonstrated the value of international co-operation in enforcing UN sanctions against Libya."

What was at stake is spelled out in a briefing paper on the affair presented by Britain to the United Nations. This warns that if Libya's drive to acquire precursor chemicals production equipment succeeded, Tripoli "will be able to sustain the production of mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin and soman on a scale of hundreds of tons a year."
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Title Annotation:Libya's stalled chemical weapons program
Author:George, Alan
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Agents runs amok.
Next Article:Open for business.

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