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TWO STEPS TO ARMAGEDDON; IN a 16th century manor house, deep in the heart of the Sussex Downs, a group of leading academics gathered in secret to chart the course of the war on terrorism. Here are the alarming predictions of the government- sponsored think-tank.

Byline: STEVE McKENZIE EXCLUSIVE

A SECRET meeting of government advisers and scientists laid out in chilling detail how the war on terrorism can end in Armageddon.

Four phases for the conflict - two of which lead to global war - were discussed at a round table in a remote stately home in rural England.

To an outsider, the meeting at Wilton Park, in Sussex, looked like any of a hundred conferences convened across the country every day.

But to those in the know, Wilton Park and its Wiston House base, born out of the flames and destruction of the Second World War, is a think-tank grappling with world- changing issues.

Leading academic experts on international affairs joined government officials and scientists for the meeting three weeks after the terrorist attacks on America.

The four-day conference on chemical and biological weapons was scheduled long before the attacks of September 11.

But its sub-heading, Towards a Safer and More Prosperous World, sat uncomfortably with events of the previous weeks.

At Wiston House - a former manor on the site is listed in the Domesday Book - the delegates debated four horrific doomsday scenarios.

Option One was a short and successful campaign against terrorism without the use of weapons of mass destruction. The WMD arsenal includes chemical and biological weapons (CBW) - such as anthrax and the plague - and nuclear weapons.

Option Two centred on a long war of attrition, a slow wearing down of the enemy over years, with limited use of CBWs.

This rings familiar with what is happening now. Generals warn of a lengthy campaign, while the world is gripped by anthrax attacks.

But chilling Options Three and Four bring the world face to face with Armageddon.

They must have been met with an uneasy silence, the speaker pausing to let the prediction settle with those less willing to imagine the unthinkable.

Option Three was labelled 'the West against the rest', a war pitting Western nations against other states and the collapse of moderate Arab regimes. It would be marked by a "prolonged conflict" and "the use of WMD by rogue states".

Option Four - the final option played out by some of Britain's brightest minds in the field - was another war of attrition.

Only this time, the West, exhausted by huge loss of life and years of war, employs "a wider use of WMD" in a desperate bid to bring an end to the conflict.

What took place at Wiston House was not reported to the wider public.

Only a short appraisal appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review - a bible to military and terrorism experts.

Yet it has had a huge impact on how the war has been fought so far. Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush continue on a course of shuttle diplomacy.

Coalition-building, reassuring doubters and gathering intelligence on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remain paramount.

Diving into Afghanistan, guns blazing, at the risk of sparking World War III, has been avoided.

Dr Richard Latter, in charge of organising conferences at Wilton Park, is quiet-spoken and pleasant. He politely declined to give his personal opinion on the debate, describing himself as "the facilitator, organiser, for the conference".

However, he did spend 45 minutes describing the discussion that took place.

It was timed to be held before a review of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which will take place before the end of the year.

The delegates, drawn from international policy and technology departments at UK universities, and government officials, called for stricter controls to be written into the conventions.

Even medical companies should be made aware how cast- off antibiotics can fall into the wrong hands, they urged.

The terrorist attacks on America had given the debate urgency.

Uncertainty over how the US would hit back fuelled fears of a long and dirty war involving WMD.

Dr Latter said the action taken and efforts by the West not to alienate Muslims, made the worst-case scenarios far less likely.

He said that Wilton Park, an executive agency of the Foreign Office, fostered international co-operation.

On its website, visitors are told of the Wilton Experience - friendly but world-changing debates with scheduled breaks for lunch and afternoon tea.

"We always say participants aren't taking part in a negotiation - they represent themselves, not their institution," chirps part of the cosy website blurb about Wilton's house-style.

Yet the talk within Wiston House is often secret - the notice at the gate reads: "Authorised access only."

Normally, at Wiston, the academics, politicians and government officials puzzle over important things like climate change, European Union issues and defence strategy.

This time, there was only one item on the agenda - and it was the most urgent of all.

s.mckenzie@sundaymail.co.uk
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Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Nov 4, 2001
Words:787
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