U.S. reveals evidence on Sudan plant Soil sample contains major component of deadly nerve agent VX

U.S. tries to dispel doubts

Chemical found lacks industrial application, doesn't occur naturally

August 25, 1998|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Disclosing for the first time the evidence behind last week's missile attack against a factory in Sudan, U.S. officials said yesterday that a soil sample collected nearby contained an important component of the deadly nerve agent VX.

The chemical, O-ethylmethylphosphonothioic acid, or EMPTA, has no known commercial application and does not occur in nature, an intelligence official said. With EMPTA, "you've done the hard work" of producing VX, he said.

U.S. officials aren't sure whether the substance was produced or stored at the plant, which the Sudanese say was a pharmaceutical factory.

After initially refusing to divulge U.S. evidence about the plant, the intelligence community released information about the soil sample yesterday in the face of growing doubts in the Arab world, among people connected with the plant and in the news media about whether the missiles had struck a legitimate target.

Thursday's attack, one of a series aimed at destroying the terrorist infrastructure of the rich Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, left the plant a smoking ruin. Additional missile strikes significantly damaged six terrorist training sites used by bin Laden in Afghanistan, officials said.

In addition to disclosing information about the soil sample, officials also cited a connection between the plant and Iraq.

"We had information that senior officials at the facility had contacts with Iraqi officials," including Emad al-Ani, the reputed creator of Iraq's chemical weapons program, the U.S. official said.

He declined to specify what kind of contacts these were or to say when they occurred.

Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law who headed Iraq's secret weapons programs before defecting, had told U.N. inspectors that Iraq had hidden sophisticated chemical warfare capabilities from the United Nations.

These included a program to develop VX beginning in May 1985 and continuing until December 1990. Iraq produced enough component chemicals for 400 tons of VX each year, he said.

Recent analysis of soil

The soil sample was obtained within the past two months, brought to the United States and analyzed in "the last month or so," the intelligence official said. He declined to say how much soil was obtained or how close it had been to the factory, which the United States has been watching for two years.

Yesterday's disclosures were designed to buttress the Clinton administration's argument that the plant was involved in chemical weapons production. With EMPTA, "you are well on your way to being capable of producing VX," the official said.

However, U.S. officials remained vague on bin Laden's connection to the plant. In fact, the evidence U.S. officials have offered links the Sudanese government to chemical weapons production more directly than it makes the case for bin Laden's involvement.

"The Sudanese government was attempting to produce chemical weapons," the official said.

The Clinton administration said the plant was part of a Sudanese government-linked organization, the Military Industrial Complex. Bin Laden, who has made clear his ambition to acquire chemical weapons, had contact with the Military Industrial Complex.

In earlier official statements, the administration played down any official Sudanese connection to the development of chemical weapons.

At a State Department briefing yesterday, spokesman James Foley said: "We have issued public statements in the wake or our strikes on Thursday, indicating that we are striking the facility and not seeking to attack the government of Sudan or its people."

Sudanese account dismissed

He dismissed a statement by Sudan's information minister on Sunday that the United States was using third parties to signal that it had made a mistake.

"No one I spoke to was aware of it. And I think it's simply not true that there was any such contact," Foley said.

A mechanical engineer who worked for the private business partnership that built the plant, Tom Carnaffin, said yesterday that he could not believe the plant was used to produce chemical weapons.

"It just didn't have the actual mechanical security to be doing anything hazardous like that," he said.

Carnaffin said it was his understanding that part of the plant was used to produce animal medicines and veterinary products, and another part was for human medicines, such as those used to treat diarrhea or diabetes. He said he was last there in 1996.

This conforms with Sudan's description of the plant's function.

In another account that cast doubt on the Clinton administration's version, the Wall Street Journal published details of the plant's ownership. The apparent owner is a Saudi banker with "no known ties to Islamic extremists," the paper said.

U.S. officials said they had no doubt that the plant was capable of being used to manufacture pharmaceuticals.

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