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Italian Police Examine Libya-Bound Chemical Shipment - 2003-01-17

Italian customs police are examining a 50-ton cargo of industrial chemicals bound for Libya. They suspect the material was to be used to produce weapons of mass destruction.

Customs police first became suspicious of the cargo because of its size. They confiscated it in December in the northwestern Italian port of Genoa. But news of the police operation only emerged this week on the pages of a leading Italian daily.

Although no arrests were made, investigators are carrying out a series of checks on the cargo and its documents. The ship arrived from Belgium and was bound to Libya with stops in several other European ports.

The chemical on board was identified as morpholine. The cargo's accompanying documents indicated that the chemicals were produced in Germany and dispatched by a Belgian company.

According to one Italian prosecutor, morpholine can be used to clean and lubricate oil drilling equipment but also to make chemical weapons. The chemical is on a United Nations list of potentially dangerous and sensitive substances.

Italy has been on high alert over terrorism since the September 11 attacks in the United States. Its ports have significantly tightened their controls and U.S. investigators have regularly paid visits to Italian ports.

Last year, Italian customs police seized a container with six tons of weapons, including missile launchers, at the port of La Spezia, near Genoa. Italian investigators have also arrested dozens of people believed to be linked to international terrorism.