Fighting raises concerns about Libyan scientists

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 4:53 PM

WASHINGTON -- The fighting in Libya has disrupted a sensitive U.S. government program to keep about 700 former nuclear and chemical weapons experts busy on civilian projects in the medical and petroleum industries there and prevent them from selling their dangerous knowledge in other countries, The Associated Press has learned.

After Libya agreed to give up its weapons of mass destruction in 2003, the U.S. has been spending about $2 million a year to steer weapons scientists and technicians into other fields, including medicine, green technology and the oil and gas industry, current and former U.S. officials told the AP. Efforts by the U.S. and by Britain, which also is involved in the program, have helped build a seawater desalination plant, a water quality lab and a telemedicine facility at the Tripoli Medical Center.

About 200 nuclear specialists and 500 others who worked with chemical weapons and missile technology could be driven to leave Libya by the fighting, including key figures in the nuclear weapons programs.

"If they're facing an uncertain future, they may just walk," said Sharon Squassoni, an arms control specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Libya's cooperation under the program already had waned over the past year, starting around the time of complaints by Moammar Gadhafi's government that it hadn't received more financial and military aid from the West in exchange for abandoning its weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. was trying to revive the weapons scientists program when protests against Gadhafi's government broke out in mid-February. "We are trying to re-engage," said Bonnie Jenkins, the State Department's coordinator for threat reduction programs. She said the U.S. still hopes to resume the efforts.

It was not immediately clear whether new U.S. financial sanctions imposed after the fighting started would interfere with payments to Libya under the program. But with President Barack Obama actively calling for Gadhafi to step down, it would be nearly impossible for the U.S. to restore ties with the Libyan government unless Gadhafi leaves office.

Citing the sensitivity of the program, the State Department and Energy Department declined to discuss it further. But experts told the AP that the Obama administration must be concerned about what happens to weapons scientists in Libya.

"I am confident that there are a number of Libyans who were involved in the program who had a great deal of knowledge, and it is knowledge that one has to be concerned about when it comes to starting up nuclear weapons programs," said former Ambassador Robert Joseph, who served as the chief negotiator in talks to end Libya's nuclear and other weapons. "They did have those individuals. And believe me, those experts could have been very useful to the Syrians or others who might be going down the nuclear path."

Most of Libya's strategic weapons programs were dismantled in 2004. Some nuclear enrichment equipment and long-range missiles were shipped to the U.S. The only unconventional weapons known to remain in Libya are 10-12 metric tons of mustard gas, a blistering agent, in storage at a site south of Tripoli, said Paul Walker of Global Green USA of Santa Monica, Calif., a charity whose parent organization was founded by Mikhail S. Gorbachev and supports eliminating such weapons.

Libya destroyed the shells that could have been used to spray the mustard agent over battlefields years ago. Walker said the chemical does not appear to pose much of a threat. "It's very difficult to deploy unless you have a sophisticated weapons system," he said.

Other analysts said that even if Gadhafi found a way to use his mustard agent, he would have little incentive to do so.

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