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Posted at 3:30 PM ET, 02/28/2011

Libya's poison gas unaffected by turmoil, official says

By Jeff Stein

A senior administration official said Monday that the White House had no reason to believe the current turmoil in Libya has made its chemical weapons stockpiles more vulnerable to theft.

Experts believe that Libya destroyed about 3,300 bombshells designed to carry mustard and sarin gas chemicals years ago, as part of its deal to end decades of economic and diplomatic isolation with the West.

But some 10 metric tons of mustard sulfate and sarin gas precursor remain stockpiled in barrels at three locations in the Libyan desert south of Tripoli, where Moammar Gaddafi has holed up in a last-ditch fight to keep from being overthrown.

Many experts worry that the barrels are ripe for picking by terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. Rumors abound, says an intelligence source with deep experience in the region, that British SAS commandos are preparing to secure the materials. Over the weekend SAS and Special Boat Service commandos rescued about 150 civilians.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, the administration official suggested the Libyans have moved to bolster the security of the material since protests erupted earlier this month, but he refused to specify what those steps were or how the administration had communicated with the Libyans.

“We have continued to urge the Libyans to safely complete destruction of their remaining chemical weapons agent as quickly as possible,” the official said. “As part of that process, the Libyans have taken appropriate steps to secure their CW [chemical weapons] from unauthorized access.”

He added, “We have no information to suggest that recent events in Libya have impacted these security provisions or placed Libya’s CW material at risk of unauthorized access.”

On the other hand, he said, the administration views “the possibility of CW material falling into the wrong hands [as] deeply concerning,” adding that “we are doing what we can to maintain awareness as to the security of these materials.”

Libya’s progress on eradicating its mustard and sarin gas stocks has been slow. In December it asked the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- established in 1997 to oversee global progress on disarmament -- for a deadline extension to May. It was granted.

“The entire stockpile of agent was supposed to have been destroyed in a destruction facility at Rabta, 65 kilometers southwest of Tripoli, by the end of last year, but because of delays only about 50 percent of the original 25 metric tons of agent has been destroyed to date,” said Jonathan Tucker, a Washington expert on chemical and biological weapons policy.

“We believe that whatever they have at this point is not in weaponized form,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "We continue to monitor their residual chemical materials," he later added.

Libya also has a civilian nuclear research center in Tajura, about 10 miles east of Tripoli, with a small research reactor, said Wyn Bowen, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at King's College, London.

"It's something to think about in terms of securing," he said.

By Jeff Stein  | February 28, 2011; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military  
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