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Administration Says Libyan Plant Extensively Damaged, Denies Responsibility

March 15, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration said today a Libyan chemical weapons plant had been extensively damaged by fire and apparently was unable to function.

White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater denied anew that the United States was responsible for the blaze at the Rabta chemical plant.

″We don’t know the origins of the fire,″ he said. ″We don’t know if it was sabotage. We don’t have any idea who did it. ... Somebody could have knocked over a kerosene lamp or something.″

Without revealing the source of his information, Fitzwater characterized the damage at the plant as extensive. ″Common sense would tell you it’s not functioning,″ he said. ″We assume it’s not functioning.″

However, he also said, ″The building is there but is it all burned out inside? We don’t really know.″

State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler said, meanwhile, the fire damage at the plant was extensive. Asked if the plant could still function, she replied: ″We can’t make that judgment for you at this time... We are not going to make a statement today whether they could still operate or cannot still operate. We are still in the process of getting information ourselves.″

She reiterated the U.S. demand that the plant should be dismantled. ″We are not in a position to say whether they can start production this afternoon at 4:30 p.m. or tomorrow morning at 3 a.m.,″ Ms. Tutwiler said. ″Our policy has not changed. We want this plant dismantled.″

President Bush was asked at a pre-St. Patrick’s Day party thrown by House Speaker Thomas Foley what information he had on the chemical plant blaze.

″Not much,″ Bush said.

Asked by a reporter if the United States had been involved in the fire, Bush said, ″No, but we’ve already said that.″

Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi threatened today to retaliate against West Germany if its agents set fire to the plant. West Germany denied responsibility.

Gadhafi said the heavily guarded plant was designed only to produce pharmaceuticals, but said Libya would be willing to pay millions of dollars to any company that builds it a chemical weapons facility.

President Bush said Wednesday the United States had heard rumors that the plant was on fire but that he did not know what had happened.

Fitzwater said the United States was told of the fire by diplomatic sources, who also said Libya had sealed its borders.

″We just dare not speculate on the cause,″ Fitzwater said.

Mahmoud Azzabi, press secretary at Libya’s United Nations mission in New York, confirmed Wednesday night ″there is a fire″ at the Rabta plant 60 miles southwest of Tripoli.

″There is speculation that it was possibly sabotage, somebody coming in from Tunisia,″ which borders on Libya, he said.

The British Broadcasting Corp. quoted an unidentified spokesman for the official Libyan news agency Jana as saying there had been a fire in some machinery at the plant but that the building had not been damaged.

ABC News quoted unidentified Libyan security sources as claiming that the plant was burned to the ground by the action of U.S. and Israeli agents.

″We have no information to indicate that,″ Roman Popadiuk, a White House deputy press secretary, said of the ABC report.

Fitzwater said last week the White House was seriously concerned by evidence that the plant was producing chemical weapons after a year of little activity.

He said then that the plant ″is dangerous and becoming more so″ and called for ″vigorous efforts to stop the operation″ of the plant. He refused to rule out military action to close it.

Despite Libyan denials, U.S. officials have said the plant has been producing limited quantities of mustard and nerve gases.

In the past, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi has said the plant was designed to produce pharmaceuticals.

The United States engaged in hostilities with Libya three times in the 1980s, twice shooting down Libyan fighter planes and bombing Tripoli in 1986 in retaliation for what then-President Reagan said was terrorism against Americans in Europe.

Western journalists were invited to tour the plant in January 1989, but they were not allowed to inspect it after they arrived in Rabta.

The Libyans built a small village of cement block apartment buildings, schools and community buildings about a mile beyond the gates to the complex to house the workers.

The journalists did see that the area was protected with surface-to-air missile batteries, tanks and soldiers. A short distance away, a radar station operated on a high, barren ridge overlooking the highway that led to the industrial complex.

The West German government has investigated allegations that a West German company helped build the plant.

Update hourly