Libya decided 10 years ago against developing WMD, Foreign Minister says

Libya decided more than 10 years ago not to develop any weapons of mass destruction, Abdul Rahman Shalgam, its Foreign Minister said yesterday.

His appeared to contradict the co-ordinated announcements in London, Washington and Tripoli last December that Libya was renouncing its WMDs and would comply with international inspection regimes. Despite the reports that Libya would destroy its illegal weapons and programmes, it was not clear then how advanced Libya's programmes were and whether it had actual weapons to destroy.

The first doubts were cast by Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, who said after visiting Tripoli that Libya was several years from developing a nuclear capability. Yesterday Mr Shalgam said it was not true that Libya had made "concessions". This was a view put about by "poisonous" pens in the Arab media. Libya, he said, "reviewed a number of issues, including programmes and equipment called weapons of mass destruction.

"We had the equipment, we had the material and the know-how and the scientists. But we never decided to produce such weapons. To have flour, water and fire does not mean that you have bread."

Libya's renunciation of such weapons, he said, went back to at least 1992, since when it had been in periodic talks with the US, and was well-documented. Mr Shalgam insisted it was Libya that had taken the initiative in renouncing its weapons programmes and it would be subject not to "inspections" but to "verification".

He admitted Libya had possessed "some equipment" that violated the non-proliferation agreement, but this had already been given up to the IAEA. Any suggestion that Libya had been scared into making concessions by the US and British use of force in Iraq had been put about by "malevolent journalists". Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, asked whether the war in Iraq was seen by the British Government as responsible for Libya's apparent change of policy on its weapons, pointed out that the rapprochement with Libya had begun in the late Nineties.

The "breakthrough" had come with the visit of the Foreign Office minister, Mike O'Brien, to Tripoli 18 months ago, "a good while before military action was contemplated in respect of Iraq". But, he insisted, he would not "claim any crude connection ... between military action in Iraq and what has happened in Iraq and in Libya".

It was rather, he said, that the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq had made for a "more secure environment" in the region and this, in turn, could have "eased" the delicate negotiations with Libya.

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