Al-Qa'ida 'unable to produce chemical or biological weapons'

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The Independent Online

US investigators are testing some suspicious­looking canisters found at former al­Qa'ida sites in Afghanistan, but officials have tentatively concluded the group could not make chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

Searches of more than 40 sites used by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network yielded documents, diagrams and material that showed "an appetite for weapons of mass destruction," Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday.

Of 50 suspected al­Qa'ida sites identified so far, 45 have been thoroughly examined, officials said.

"In terms of having hard evidence of actual possession of weapons of mass destruction, I do not have that at this stage," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.

Rumsfeld added that he had been shown photographs of canisters recently found at a former al­Qa'ida site which could contain chemical agents. Their contents have yet to be examined, he said.

"Externally they appear to be weapons of mass destruction," he said. Asked to explain, he said, "They've got stuff on them that make reasonable people think there's something not good in there, and we're going to check them out."

Other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the canisters are no more than 6 inches (15 centimeters) high and bear Cyrillic markings indicating they might be of Russian origin.

These officials said the canisters were probably harmless. They said al­Qa'ida is known to have made a number of transactions in the past for useless items dressed up as chemical or other terror weapons.

Rumsfeld did not offer his own assessment of how far al­Qa'ida had progressed toward developing weapons of mass destruction. Other officials with access to intelligence information on the subject said the terrorists had great ambitions but were in the earliest stage of pursuing them.

One official said the materials and equipment found in Afghanistan were so basic as to resemble items an ordinary American high school chemistry class would use.