LIBYA: Secret talks ‘focused on nuclear expertise’




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in Riyadh

Financial Times, 22 December 2003

Libya succeeded in enriching uranium and has the skills to build centrifuges which would have allowed it to construct key parts of a nuclear programme without foreign assistance, a senior western intelligence officer said yesterday.

Despite evidence of chemical and biological activity, the officer said that British and US officials had focused on the nuclear issue during the nine months of secret negotiations that culminated in Friday’s announcement that Libya was halting its banned weapons programmes.

Libya had used foreign expertise and overseas suppliers to start its weapons projects, the officer added. However, it took a strategic decision to minimise its dependence on other states.

“They had centrifuges turning and were making enriched uranium, and once you are able to enrich uranium yourself you are way down the road,” he said. “That was a massive breakthrough for them. This was a serious programme, and one that was not bought off the shelf. They had obviously made a strategic decision to do it themselves. And in this way they were more committed than the Iranians.”

Iran, which is suspected by the US of secretly working to develop nuclear weapons, has claimed that traces of highly enriched uranium found by UN inspectors were the result of contaminated imported equipment. The Iranian government last week signed an “additional protocol” to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, opening it to a more intrusive inspections regime.

The intelligence officer, who has detailed knowledge of the secret talks that led to Friday’s announcement, added: “There was clearly a distinction between what [the Libyans] had done and what the Iranians had done, which was essentially to get somebody else to build it for them. The Libyans have capacity to make the centrifuges, freeing them from the restrictions of procurement.”

Officials say that the success of the negotiations depended on being able to show the Libyans that a great deal was known about what they were doing, and combining revelations with veiled threats.

“The key intention was to bring the Libyans into the real world. We told them: you can see what’s going in Iraq,” the officer said. “They realised we knew something. They couldn’t deny what we were saying. They went into the room to negotiate, and we switched the lights on. They could see what we knew, and couldn’t deny it.”

Libya’s strong opposition to the al-Qaeda terrorist network is also a key factor in the readiness of the US to draw closer to Muammer Gadaffi’s regime. Libya was the first country to issue an arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, and is detaining members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), affiliated to al-Qaeda.

“The LIFG is a crucial part of al-Qaeda, and the Libyans have a contribution to make in the war on terror. This was one of the matters in our policy of wanting to talk with them,” said the senior intelligence official.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008