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US Says Libyan-Bound Nuclear Equipment Seized - 2003-12-31


Bush administration officials are confirming news reports that a U.S.-led naval operation in October interdicted a shipment of uranium-enrichment components bound for Libya. U.S. officials say the seizure may have helped prompt Libya to make its pledge two weeks ago to dismantle weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. officials are giving few details of the interdiction operation. But they are describing as "essentially correct" a Wall Street Journal newspaper account Wednesday that a U.S.-led naval operation in early October resulted in the seizure of thousands of uranium-centrifuge parts, bound for Libya, from a German-registered freighter in the Mediterranean.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the vessel was seized based on intelligence information that it was carrying nuclear components, and that the interdiction was a major success for the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative, the PSI.

Begun earlier this year, the PSI involves the United States and more than a dozen other countries working together to prevent the illicit shipment by sea, land or air of weapons of mass destruction material that might end up in the hands of terrorist groups or rogue states.

The seizure of the centrifuge parts came little more than two months before the surprise announcement December 19 that Libya, after negotiations with the United States and Britain, had agreed to dismantle its secret nuclear and other weapons-of-mass destruction programs.

Under questioning here, spokesman Ereli noted that the interdiction may well have been a factor in Libya's ultimate decision to end its covert weapons efforts: "Was there a causality? I think one can argue that. But can you come to a definitive conclusion about it? It's hard," he said. "I think the best way to look at it is that we are pushing on all fronts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And those efforts are producing results."

The October interdiction occurred several months after the start of secret talks between the Moammar Gadhafi government and the United States and Britain on the weapons programs. Mr. Ereli said that shortly after the seizure, Libya agreed for the first time to allow experts from the two countries to visit its weapons facilities.

The source of the centrifuge parts bound for Libya has not been revealed. Officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency who visited Libya earlier this week said Libya possessed a number of centrifuges, which are used to refine uranium to weapons-grade material. But they said the equipment was largely dismantled and stored in boxes and that the weapons program overall was at an early stage.

Officials here say U.S. technicians will make their own inspection visits to assess whether Libya is meeting disarmament pledges.

If it is, the Bush administration has made clear it will consider lifting U.S. economic sanctions that, among other things, bar Americans from visiting the North African country and forbid U.S. technical help for the Libyan oil industry.

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