Libya years away from bomb, top U.N. nuclear inspector says

But ElBaradei expresses surprise at high-tech gear acquired on black market


LONDON - The top United Nations nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, said yesterday that Libya's nuclear program was years away from producing a nuclear weapon and was now largely dismantled and stored in boxes.

But ElBaradei, who spoke in Libya after visiting four previously undeclared sites where scientists had been working to perfect the enrichment of uranium, expressed surprise that Libya had acquired a great deal of high-technology equipment needed to enrich uranium through black-market transactions that have yet to be disclosed.

It was "an eye-opener to see how much material has been going from one country to the other" and "the extent of the black-market network," ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said at a news conference in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. The existence of this shadowy network of middlemen who often circumvent national export controls, he said, proved that those controls were not working.

"What we have seen is a program in the very initial stages of development," ElBaradei said of the Libyan effort. "We haven't seen any industrial-scale facility to produce highly enriched uranium. We haven't seen any enriched uranium."

ElBaradei met with Col. Muammar el Kadafi for about 30 minutes, during which the Libyan leader repeated his vow to rid the country of illicit weapons, according to an official traveling with the atomic energy agency chief. Kadafi pledged to begin immediate compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, especially by submitting to unannounced inspections of any facility.

"Libya committed today to act as if the protocol was in force," ElBaradei said, referring to the treaty requirement on inspections.

During the earlier news conference, ElBaradei, a former Egyptian diplomat who directed the final inspections in Iraq last year along with his colleague Hans Blix, said it was his "gut feeling" that Libya was three to seven years away from producing a nuclear weapon. "We are now working with them to neutralize any activities, any programs that could have led to a nuclear weapon," he said.

On Sunday, ElBaradei's inspectors visited four previously unknown sites near Tripoli where nuclear weapons-related equipment was stored. A senior Bush administration official said all of the sites visited by ElBaradei's team had been inspected by British and U.S. intelligence experts in October and early this month as part of the secret diplomacy that led to Kadafi's renunciation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons Dec. 19.

Robert J. Einhorn, the top State Department official in charge of nonproliferation in the Clinton administration, said in an interview that while it was "very good to get Libya out of the nuclear weapons business, it could be even more important if this helps us to understand the black market in nuclear technology and roll up some of those sources of supply."

A senior official in the Bush administration said that while ElBaradei's visit was important, it was another reminder that the nuclear agency "missed the Libyan nuclear weapons program just like it missed so many others."

A spokesman for ElBaradei said he responded to this assertion by pointing out that "no verification system would be able to detect the kind of low-level activities Libya was conducting, short of sheer luck or some perfect intelligence tip."

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