Havel Details Sale of Explosive to LibyaBy Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 23, 1990; Page A15
LONDON, MARCH 22 -- Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel disclosed today that his country's former Communist regime supplied to the Libyan government of Col. Moammar Gadhafi 1,000 tons of Semtex, the odorless, virtually undetectable explosive that has become the world's most lethal terrorist weapon.
"The past regime exported 1,000 tons to Libya," Havel said at a press conference during his first official visit here. "If you consider that 200 grams is enough to blow up an aircraft, this means world terrorism has enough Semtex to last 150 years."
His statement marked the first time Czechoslovak officials have acknowledged exporting the yellowish plastic explosive to Libya. Havel added that his government was "unable to make Libya return the Semtex."
The announced total was "surprisingly high . . . considerably more than those of us who work in this field had assumed," said Paul Wilkinson, director of the London-based Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism.
Wilkinson and other experts said the official figure could grossly underestimate the actual amount of Semtex that has been supplied not only to Gadhafi's government but also to countries such as Syria, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Some experts have put the world-wide figure at as high as 40,000 tons and contend that Czechoslovakia may have produced 2 to 3 times the 100 tons per month that officials there have claimed.
"We have to assume that the official records do not give the full details of black-market deals that must have gone on between some of the people in the government and middlemen," Wilkinson said. "It's very likely that there's a hell of a lot of this stuff around the world."
Semtex was sold abroad not for profit but "on political orders which came from above." said Havel. "The absurd part of the matter is that Czechoslovakia did not make money out of it."
The former dissident playwright, who took office in January after Czechoslovakia's Stalinist regime collapsed under popular pressure, said his government stopped exporting the explosive last month and would not resume sales until the manufacturer added chemical "markers" that would give Semtex a tell-tale odor.
But Havel said his country would continue to manufacture Semtex for industrial use. "This is an industrial explosive necessary for various industrial purposes," he said. "It is not an explosive made especially for terrorists."
Havel said other countries manufacture Semtex-like products and that he believed Czechoslovakia sometimes was wrongly blamed for terrorist attacks. But many experts say Semtex, which Czechoslovakia has produced for the past two decades at a factory in Semtin, about 50 miles east of Prague, is by far the best of its kind.
The pliable explosive -- which according to the FBI has an indefinite shelf life if stored properly -- is easy to use, can be molded into any kind of shape and cannot be detected by x-ray machines or sniffer dogs. It also is extraordinarily powerful. Scottish investigators believe a few ounces packed in a cassette recorder were responsible for the mid-air destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747 jumbo jet that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 270 people.
After the Lockerbie disaster, Czechoslovak officials told Britain's Foreign Office that exports of the explosive had ceased in 1982. Last month, however, the new government revealed that exports had continued until 1988.
Aside from Lockerbie, Semtex is a particularly sensitive matter in Britain because Gadhafi reportedly supplied between five and 10 tons of it to the Irish Republican Army for use in its violent campaign to oust the British from Northern Ireland. Terrorism experts say Libya also freely provided the explosive to groups such as Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council and Italy's Red Brigades.
Wilkinson said Western governments should request a full list of Semtex customers and amounts purchased from the Prague government. "One suspects that if they supplied this much to Libya, they must have supplied quite a bit to other states that have encouraged terrorism," he said.
He said Washington and London also should insist that the Czechoslovaks introduce a chemical agent to the explosive that would allow investigators to determine where and when a batch was manufactured and to trace all the places it had been used.
© Copyright 1990 The Washington Post Company