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Israel fails to calm Dutch anger over 'nerve gas' crash

IT WAS around Songs of Praise time on a Sunday evening. The residents of the Bijlmermeer flats would probably have been pottering around at home, getting dinner, thinking about the week ahead, watching TV. There was a good football match on; top Dutch clubs Eindhoven and Feyenoord were playing.

Norma Habibi had popped out to the night shop for something, leaving her two toddlers with the woman next door. Turning the corner of the estate on her way back she heard a low drone and looked up to see "a terrible black shadow" fall over the block of flats. The drone turned to a roar like thunder. Then there was a ball of fire and before her eyes an El Al Boeing 747 cargo plane on its way from New York to Tel Aviv ploughed into the building.

The worst air crash in the history of the Netherlands, six years ago today, turned the Amsterdam apartment complex into a hell-like inferno in seconds, killing Norma Habibi's two children and 41 of her neighbours. Six years on, the surviving residents of the suburb are suffering physical ailments which their doctors have long suspected, and which new revelations last week appear to confirm, were caused by exposure to something more sinister than burning perfume, paints or electronic equipment.

El Al, the Israeli state airline, admitted last week it was also carrying three of the four chemical ingredients needed to make the odourless, highly toxic nerve agent sarin, the gas Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds in Iraq and which killed a dozen people in the Tokyo metro in 1995.

People in Amsterdam were appalled but not surprised. Rumours have been circulating for years that the men in coveralls and gas masks who appeared mysteriously at the site after the crash were from Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

Prompted by Dutch newspaper reports and a statement from El Al, the Israeli government admitted on Thursday there was a quantity of dimethyl methylphosphonate or DMMT on board, but denied the plane carried any "dangerous goods". The material was destined for "testing filters", a statement from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said.

Freight papers for the El Al flight indicate that 190 litres of DMMT were on board the plane - enough, when combined with two other chemicals in the cargo, to generate more than a quarter of a tonne of sarin.

The materials, purchased from a US plant, were bound for the Institute for Biological Research in the Israeli town of Ness Ziona south of Tel Aviv. Israel has never admitted producing chemical or biological weapons and has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Jan Medema, who heads a team of chemical weapons inspectors and directs the toxic substances division at the Dutch defence research institute in The Hague, is concerned about the quantity of DMMT, the presence of two other substances (isopropanol and hydrogen fluoride) and the destination of the cargo.

Dr Medema believes that the volume of DMMT in itself was too big for routine experiments at a research lab. "We have been trying to think what possible research purposes you would need this compound in such large quantities for. The likelihood has to be that it was for sarin. Either they had some special plan for an experiment or they needed a quantity of sarin for some special purpose. This raises many questions."

Responding to the outcry, the Dutch government has ordered a full public inquiry. Beyond the chemicals which were identified last week and some ordinary industrial goods, mystery still surrounds one third of the cargo.

When and if the answers come they will be of interest not just to the sick people of Bijlmermeer and Ness Ziona (who have also been demanding to know what goes on there) but to anyone alarmed at the build-up of chemical and biological weapons in a region as volatile as the Middle East.