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Libya: next member of the chemical club?

LIBYA is building a huge chemical warfare facility in the desert about 50 miles southwest of Tripoli, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and other sources. It is, says CIA director William Webster, the largest such complex ever detected by United States intelligence. It will give Libya a chemical weapons production capability estimated to equal or surpass that of the US, a well-informed source says.

The US government has released little information about it - in part, to protect intelligence sources and also to avoid a public row with a US ally, Japan. Japanese firms have not been linked to actual toxic chemical production. But a metallurgical complex within the Libyan industrial compound was built largely by Japan Steel Works, US officials say. Companies from other unnamed nations, including US allies, were also reportedly involved. This plant, according to a senior Pentagon official, is specifically designed to fabricate chemical artillery shell parts. ``The evidence,'' he says, ``is overwhelming.''

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Shigeo Kawahara, president of Japan Steel Works America, denies the parent company is involved. ``We are not helping in the construction of a chemical weapons plant in Libya,'' he says. ``My understanding is that we are only making a repair shop.'' Sources say a number of pointed diplomatic exchanges have passed between Washington and Tokyo over the Libya complex. Tokyo, US sources say, has apologized for the circumstances that allowed the deal to go forward and has promised greater vigilance. A spokesman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington says no such diplomatic exchanges took place.

US intelligence agencies are tight-lipped about the complex. But one source with access to intelligence data says it was easy to identify Japan Steel Works: The company's employees in Libya, the source says, marched to work in formation, wearing the company logo on their overalls. The source also says that Marubeni Corporation, a giant Japanese trading firm, ``has exposure'' in Libya. He declined to elaborate on what this entailed, as did an informed US official who also confirmed Marubeni's involvement in Libya. Marubeni is a leading producer of chemicals and chemical handling machinery.

A spokesman for Marubeni America Corporation would not comment on the report. A spokesman at Japan's Embassy in Washington said, ``Japanese companies have no relation to construction of a chemical weapons factory in Libya.''

US government sources say that top officials of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry were forewarned by subordinates that Japanese firms were becoming involved in Libya. These warnings were apparently disregarded.

A pilot plant in the Libyan chemical complex is reportedly now in operation. The US has said Libya is ``on the verge of full-scale production.'' But two US sources explain that the main chemical production facility is not yet operative.

One well-informed US official says Libya lacks the know-how to finish the plant on its own, and must depend on expertise from the outside. But, he says, Libya is apparently still obtaining that cooperation.

Western nations are eyeing this complex with growing uneasiness - as are Israel and Libya's African neighbors.

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Libya has already used chemical weapons, acquired from Iran, against Chadian forces in 1987, US officials say. Given Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's support for international terrorists, the US also fears possible chemical terrorism.

The US and other countries have been trying quietly to mobilize action to block completion of the Libyan facility. Others may be considering more direct action. There has been persistent speculation among informed diplomats that Israel is considering a preemptive strike against the facility.

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