Chemical cited in U.S. attack could have use commercially Use possible in fungicides, treaty oversight group says

August 27, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The chemical that the United States cited to justify its bombing of a Sudanese factory last week could be used for commercial products, the international agency overseeing the treaty barring chemical weapons said yesterday.

The United States has insisted that the chemical found outside the factory could only mean that the plant was intended to make the deadly nerve agent VX. Sudan contends that the facility made medicines and veterinary products.

The treaty group the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons conceded that it was not aware of any commercial product on the market that contained the chemical, nor of another chemical compound made with it.

But its spokesman, Donato Kinigier-Passigli, said in a telephone interview yesterday that a search of scientific papers showed that the chemical, known as EMPTA, could be used "in limited quantities for legitimate commercial purposes." The uses, he said, included fungicides and anti-microbial agents, and not just the production of VX.

One Pentagon official said the treaty organization had simply uncovered academic examples of possible uses, with no real evidence that any commercial products are made from EMPTA.

In the chemical industry, experts said they were not aware of any commercial uses for EMPTA, nor could they foresee any practical uses based on what is known about the chemical. Aldrich Chemical Co. in Milwaukee makes the chemical and sells it at $45 a gram to laboratories for research. But a spokesman said the company was not aware of its use in any commercial products.

The Clinton administration leveled the Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co. plant in Khartoum with a volley of cruise missiles last Thursday, saying it had evidence linking the factory to the manufacturing of VX and to a shadowy network of terrorists.

Facing questions about the decision to bomb the factory, senior administration officials said Monday that a soil sample collected nearby provided irrefutable evidence of the presence of VX at the plant.

Kinigier-Passigli emphasized that the organization had come to no conclusions about the Clinton administration's charges or Sudan's counter-charges. The independent organization administers the chemical weapons treaty signed by more than 160 nations and ratified by the U.S. Senate last year.

Still, the organization's statement raised questions about the Clinton administration's categorical assertions that there could be no other possible explanation for the presence of EMPTA, or )) ethyl methylphosphonothionate.

Yesterday's disclosure added to a number of inconsistencies in the Clinton administration's accusations, including statements by a senior intelligence official hours after the bombing that the plant in Khartoum was heavily guarded and produced no commercial products.

Clinton administration officials declined yesterday to discuss the evidence or the caveats raised by the Organization for the

Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. However, U.S. defense and intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they still believed there could be no other explanation for the presence of EMPTA in a soil sample collected outside the facility several months ago.

Yesterday, several U.S. experts in chemical warfare and analysis offered another possible explanation. They said the chemical's structure resembled that of an agricultural insecticide, known as FONOFOS, which is commercially available in Africa.

While the two are not identical, they have molecular similarities and could be confused in a laboratory test performed under less-than-ideal conditions, said Hank Ellison, a counterterrorism expert who ran the Army's chemical and biological warfare programs at Fort Campbell, Ky., in the 1980s.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials dismissed the possibility that the United States could have misinterpreted the soil sample.

In The Hague, Netherlands, an official with the chemical weapons organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said scientific research also suggested that EMPTA could be the byproduct of the breakdown of other pesticides.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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