Spanish firms in secret arms trade to Libya

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The Independent Online

Spain's crusading Judge Baltazar Garzon has sent a team to London to examine the possible involvement of Spanish companies in a secret network that supplied nuclear equipment to Libya, it was revealed yesterday.

Judge Garzon launched his investigation last summer in co-operation with the Spanish intelligence service, CNI, and British security forces, after allegations that Spanish companies exported high-precision equipment that may have helped Libya mount an ambitious nuclear proliferation programme.

The allegations have surfaced as Tony Blair prepares to rehabilitate the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi,on the world stage.

Spanish intelligence officers have uncovered exports of machinery and equipment supposedly destined for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates that "without being nuclear technology, could have been of use in proliferation programmes," Spain's Trade Ministry said.

One Spanish company is suspected of operating as a commercial agent on behalf of several other firms in Spain that exported such material via the UAE, the ministry said.

The company, whose identity is not revealed, "was asked to provide information on each and every piece of equipment exported", a trade ministry spokeswoman said.

The ministry insists that no Spanish company is suspected of supplying centrifuges that could be used for the enrichment of uranium "either to Libya or any other country from which there is any risk of it being diverted to another destination".

The deliveries under suspicion refer to precision machinery and equipment susceptible to so-called "dual use". They did not include material "destined for a nuclear programme", the spokeswoman said. But she conceded that the equipment could be modified for nuclear use.

CNI warned the Economy Ministry in 2001 that Spanish companies could be implicated in the underground traffic of nuclear components. No such exports have been reported for the past two years.

The alleged network was uncovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) while dismantling Libya's nuclear programme. The multimillion-dollar network was revealed after Libya renounced its nuclear programme last December.

Judge Garzon opened his investigation last June in response to Spanish intelligence reports. He now awaits a report from a rogatory commission he has sent to Britain, and further intelligence reports, according to sources at Spain's national court.

British and other European intelligence operations are said to have collaborated closely in uncovering the supposed network. Apart from Spanish companies, firms from Germany, Pakistan, Malaysia and Japan are also implicated. IAEA investigators are trying to establish whether the companies that supplied the materials knew of their final destination.

The IAEA believes the UAE has become a supermarket for nuclear contraband, where components - mostly innocuous on their own - are centralised and sent on to their final destination.

The Foreign Office declined to elaborate on Britain's possible collaboration with Judge Garzon's investigation.