Argentina gives up secret missile parts Step follows pledge to dismantle project

March 07, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Using Spain as a go-between Argentina has handed over most of the components of a secret ballistic missile project known as the Condor II to the United States for destruction, government officials here say.

The delivery in late January brought the Argentine government close to fulfilling a promise made two years ago by President Carlos Saul Menem to dismantle the missile project, which was financed mostly by Iraq.

Had the program been completed, the medium-range missiles could have eventually been used to deliver biological, chemical and nuclear warheads within a 500-mile range.

A shipment of nearly all the Condor II parts developed by Argentina was sent to Spain in January and placed under control of U.S. officials.

Metal parts, such as rocket casings and fins, were crushed beyond reuse in Spain, Argentine officials said. They said that 14 completed rocket launchers with solid fuel and other parts considered highly explosive were likely to be shipped to the United States, where they are to be blown up.

"The United States is free to do with the missile what it wants," said a Foreign Ministry official in Buenos Aires, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But both the United States and Argentina acknowledge that several computers that would be used to guide the missile were not included in the shipment and that Argentine officials have yet to say where they are. Foreign Ministry officials maintain that they do not know whether the computers have been intentionally hidden, dismantled for other uses or simply misplaced.

Argentina's agreement to give up its most secretive and sophisticated technological project underlines efforts by Mr. Menem to align his nation with the industrialized world.

Foreign Ministry officials say the missile project could have set off a costly and destabilizing arms race with Brazil or Chile. Eliminating it will bring technological benefits, they add, such as an agreement signed last month with the United States that permits Argentina to import sophisticated computer and nuclear technology from industrialized countries that have signed nonproliferation accords.

But the decision to abandon the missile program has stirred some bitter public disapproval. The Condor II project tends to stoke nationalistic sentiment here because it was initiated after Argentina's disastrous defeat by Britain in the 1982 war over the Falklands, a war in which the United States sided with Britain.

U.S. officials are concerned about the difficulty faced by the Menem government in taking full control of the Condor II. Some of those obstacles result in part from the long secrecy surrounding the project.

"We calculate that no more than one or two Argentines had knowledge of the full scope of the project," the ministry official said, adding that components were often taken in and out of the country without government oversight.

He said that most technicians at the Falda de Carmen plant near the central city of Cordoba were foreigners. "Argentines were not really running the show," he said.

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