TIRANA, Albania -- Near the end of his 40 years in power, Enver Hoxha prepared his tiny country for an invasion he warned was sure to come. The Marxist dictator built 750,000 concrete bunkers in the 1970s and 1980s and imported large quantities of weapons to repel an expected attack by Americans, Soviets, Yugoslavs or perhaps all three at once.
But his most prized weapons acquisition was a state secret known only to the Albanian leader and his closest advisers -- a secret that only now is coming fully to light.
Albanian officers guard a depot outside the capital that houses 16 tons of chemical weapons imported in the 1970s, apparently from the Chinese military. The chemicals theoretically contain enough poison for millions of lethal doses.
(Joby Warrick -- The Washington Post)
In the mid-1970s, U.S. and Albanian officials now believe, Hoxha arranged the purchase of several hundred canisters of lethal military chemicals to be used in weapons against invading armies. The chemicals included yperite, or sulfur mustard, one of the chemicals used by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to slaughter thousands of Kurdish civilians in the 1980s, as well as lewisite and adamsite, which are based on arsenic.
This deadly stockpile was hidden in one of Hoxha's bunkers, then forgotten after Hoxha died in 1985. The communist regime fell in 1991. The current Albanian government's surprise discovery of the canisters, acknowledged to U.S. and U.N. officials several months ago, has also led to the disclosure of the country that apparently supplied the chemicals: China.
Albanian officials recently allowed a reporter from The Washington Post to view the stockpile, a move that comes as there are ongoing efforts by the fledgling democracy to renounce the country's past and bolster its international standing. While the stockpile is small compared with the vast chemical weapons holdings of Russia and the United States, it is worrisome to U.S. officials because of what it represents: one of scores of undocumented or poorly secured weapons caches worldwide that could be exploited by terrorists with deadly effect.
"The threats turn up in the darndest places," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons expert and director of the Non-proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It illustrates the problem we face with Cold War arsenals, which are still deadly and still large. Just as you have to worry about what a crazy man is thinking in a cave in Afghanistan, you also have to worry about what happens to these weapons in places like Albania and North Korea. It's not that the Albanians would use them, but a terrorist group could learn of them and then try to pick the low-hanging fruit."
Although Albania moved quickly to secure the stockpile after its discovery, the chemicals had little or no protection for more than a decade, at a time when the country was roiled by social and economic upheaval internally and civil war across the border in Kosovo, U.S. officials in Washington said.
The 16 tons of chemicals theoretically contain enough poison for millions of lethal doses. In practical terms, casualties from an attack using mustard or lewisite would greatly depend on how and where the chemicals were dispersed. Weapons experts say a well-designed release of chemicals in a crowded, indoor setting could potentially kill hundreds or perhaps thousands of people.
The discovery also is significant because it appears to confirm something that U.S. intelligence analysts have long suspected: China's past role as a purveyor of chemical weapons technology. While China is believed to have halted such exports long ago, the discovery of Chinese-made yperite in Albania has fueled concerns about the possible existence of similar forgotten or abandoned stockpiles in other countries.
U.S. officials note that China also provided military aid to Romania, to what was then Yugoslavia and to several Middle Eastern countries in the 1970s and 1980s. China has never acknowledged transferring military chemicals abroad, and no stockpiles traced to China are known to have turned up until now. If they existed in the past, U.S. intelligence analysts say, the chemicals might have been destroyed, hidden away or -- as in the case of Albania -- forgotten.
It is theoretically possible, intelligence analysts say, that more undiscovered chemicals could yet be found in Albania. However, Albanian defense officials, who now are preparing to destroy the yperite with help from U.S. and U.N. agencies, say they are confident that all of Hoxha's canisters are safely locked away.
"We have searched everywhere, and I can declare to you that Albania has no more such weapons," said Albanian Lt. Col. Muharrim Alba, a senior arms control specialist with the Albanian Defense Ministry.
But Alba also acknowledged that Albania had been unable to find a shred of documentation describing the original purchase by Hoxha three decades ago. The investigation has turned up no letters, receipts or inventories, or even a single officer of the former government who is willing or able to recall how the chemicals were obtained.
"It was the height of the Cold War," said Alba, shrugging. "Communist countries helped each other. And they didn't always leave documents to show what they did."