A 16-ton cache of material for chemical weapons left behind by Albania's former Communist government will be destroyed beginning next year with U.S. help, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) announced yesterday, describing the move as a breakthrough in the elimination of such stockpiles around the world.

A U.S.-Albanian agreement to destroy the chemicals marks the first expansion of a key U.S. nonproliferation program -- the Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative -- into a country outside the former Soviet Union, Lugar said. The program already has destroyed or dismantled more than 6,400 nuclear warheads and hundreds of other weapons in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

"We now have latitude to work with other countries who will know we have the willingness and the funds to cooperatively eliminate weapons of mass destruction," said Lugar, who co-founded the program 12 years ago with Sam Nunn, then a Democratic senator from Georgia. "If we do not continue to pursue this avenue . . . accidents and misappropriations will occur."

Late Wednesday, the Bush administration formally authorized the release of $20 million to fund the destruction of the Albanian cache, which consists of barrels of an unspecified chemical stored in a small brick depot in a rural area.

U.S. officials declined to divulge details about the cache for security reasons, but said the chemicals were acquired more than 15 years ago by the leaders of what was once Europe's most isolated and rigidly Marxist government. Albania became a multi-party democracy following the overthrow of communism in 1990, and its leaders have since sought close ties with the United States.

In theory, the Albanian chemicals could be loaded into bombs or artillery shells for use in a military conflict, or dispersed by terrorists in an attack against civilians, weapons experts said. The presence of such a cache in Albania was a violation of the country's commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Albania ratified in 1994.

Albanian leaders have said they discovered the chemicals while surveying the country for hidden small-arms caches placed in remote areas by the former government. The United States has already helped Albania install fences and surveillance gear, and will now provide money and technical support for the destruction of the chemicals over the next two years, Lugar said.

Nunn, now chief executive of a nonproliferation advocacy group, Nuclear Threat Initiative, said the case underscored the need for the global expansion of U.S. nonproliferation efforts approved by Congress last year. "We need to use this and other tools to move faster to keep dangerous weapons and materials out of the hands of the most dangerous people," Nunn said. "We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe."