LONDON - A team of British and American weapons experts has arrived in Libya and within weeks could be dismantling, destroying and removing technology and materials related to Libya's once-secret programs to develop nuclear and other illicit weapons, a senior Bush administration official said yesterday.
Plans are also being made by Libyan chemical weapons scientists to incinerate tons of mustard gas agent that was manufactured to fill chemical bombs, the official said.
Missile programs and biological research efforts are still under scrutiny, but experts hope to develop plans to permanently shut them down in the weeks ahead.
The United States and Britain have not decided how to remove any highly enriched uranium and the centrifuge machines used in the manufacture of a nuclear bomb - a project that was in its early stages when Libyan leader Col. Muammar el Kadafi announced Dec. 19 that he would abandon the effort.
The senior official said the banned materials would most likely be shipped to a secure facility in Britain or the United States.
In Vienna, American and British officials meeting with Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, agreed that the United Nations agency would be responsible for verifying the destruction and removal work in the weeks and months ahead, a spokesman for the agency said.
However, the work of destroying or removing illicit weapons will not be performed by inspectors from the international body, as it was in Iraq, Western officials said.
Instead, it will be performed by American and British experts from intelligence agencies, the U.S. Department of Energy and the national nuclear laboratories.
ElBaradei met with the American undersecretary of state for arms control, John R. Bolton, and a senior British disarmament official, William Ehrman.
After the meeting, the three officials met with reporters but did not make reference to the American and British team in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
The head of the team, which consists of about a dozen experts, was identified by Western officials as Donald A. Mahley, the State Department's special negotiator for chemical and biological arms control issues working under Bolton.
ElBaradei said his agency's role was "very clear - that we need to do the verification."
"A good part of the program needs to be eliminated, it needs to be moved out, and we clearly need the British and American support with logistics," he said.
Bolton said the meeting had been very productive.
However, Western officials said significant tensions remain between some American officials and ElBaradei, whose organization is regarded by some in Washington as ineffective compared with American and British efforts that persuaded Kadafi to end his country's illicit weapons programs.
ElBaradei was said to have bristled at remarks by senior administration officials in Washington that the exposure of the secret Libyan nuclear weapons program demonstrated another failure of detection by the U.N. agency.
ElBaradei and Bolton agreed during their meeting on what they would say publicly to minimize friction and reinforce their decision to work cooperatively, Western diplomats said.
A spokesman for ElBaradei said he would send nuclear inspectors to Libya this week. The international agency will tag and seal the machines, the technology and the dangerous materials so they can be placed in an inventory for destruction or removal.
The senior administration official said Libya is eager to dismantle the weapons programs and to make a full and detailed declaration about its nuclear program to the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in March.
Those declarations, along with the dismantling and destruction of weapons and technology, will hasten the day when Libya looks to President Bush to lift U.S. trade sanctions and restore diplomatic relations with Tripoli.
Those, in turn, are essential steps in the return of U.S. oil companies, something Kadafi and American oil executives have been seeking for years.