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US Funds Destruction of Albanian Chemical Weapons Stockpile

The State Department said Monday the United States will underwrite the destruction of a decades-old stockpile of chemical weapons in Albania. U.S. officials say the Balkan state acquired the deadly agents during the former dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

In a program that had heretofore received little publicity, the State Department said Monday the United States is paying for the destruction of some 16 tons of stockpiled chemical weapons in Albania in the first project of its kind outside the former Soviet Union.

The Albanian stockpile, including mustard-gas type agents, had apparently been acquired in the 1970s by the secretive government of the country's former Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha.

According to the Washington Post newspaper, the weapons were stored in bunkers in mountains about 40 kilometers from the capital, Tirana, and forgotten about after Mr. Hoxha died in 1985.

It said the current Albanian government discovered the 600 canisters containing the weapons material a number of months ago, and informed the United States and United Nations.

The Bush administration has committed to fund the destruction process under the Nunn-Lugar program, under which the United States has spent several billion dollars since 1992 helping countries of the former Soviet Union destroy Cold-War era weapons.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli praised Albania's cooperation in pledging to eliminate the weapons under the international Chemical Weapons Convention:

"They have fully cooperated with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in identifying the chemical weapons stockpile, in making a full stockpile declaration, in insuring that the stockpile is secure, and moving toward destruction as rapidly as possible," he said.

Spokesman Ereli said the U.S. Defense Department is developing a plan for destroying the weapons under terms of the international convention by a compliance deadline of April 2007.

He said under the $20 million program, a portable chemical weapons incinerator will be brought to the site of the storage bunkers and the agents disposed of by U.S. contractors. The incinerator will then be returned to the United States.

The Washington Post said the Albanian stockpile, though relatively small, was worrisome to U.S. officials as one of a number of undocumented or poorly-secured weapons caches around the world that could be exploited by terrorists.

Officials here declined comment on an assertion by the newspaper that at least some of the chemical agents had apparently been supplied to the Enver Hoxha regime by China.

The bizarre Stalinist government broke with Moscow in the 1960s for straying too far from Marxist principles, and later became estranged from China as well.

Toward the end of his rule, Mr. Hoxha spent much the impoverished country's income building hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers to defend against a feared invasion by a varying array of foreign enemies.