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Sudan Factory May Have Made Drugs

August 24, 1998

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) _ The mystery surrounding the pharmaceutical plant attacked by the United States remains, perhaps hidden with the melted packets of pain relievers and bottles of antibiotics strewn among the rubble of red brick, splintered wood and white plaster.

Washington says the plant was making precursors for chemical weapons. Sudan says no such work occurred.

But interviews with Sudanese officials, doctors, lawyers and plant employees suggest some of Sudan’s claims are true: The plant produced antibiotics and drugs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, it planned to export to Iraq under U.N. approval, it was privately owned and it was not a secret installation.

The plant, El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co., was in an industrial area near a relatively upscale neighborhood of Khartoum.

Four main buildings were on the site: three one-story factories and a four-story administration building that is now half-standing. The factories were destroyed, and fires still smoldered on Sunday, emitting a stench of burning plastic.

The plant began production in December 1996. It offered a line of 87 products, 12 of them for veterinary use, said Adam Umbadi, a production engineer at the factory who helped install the machinery.

El Shifa was the biggest of six pharmaceutical plants in the Sudanese capital, employing 306 people, according to Umbadi and Khartoum pharmacists.

Its main products were the antibiotic amoxicillin, which can be used to treat malaria, and the pain reliever paracetamol, Umbadi said.

All those products, packaged in El Shifa’s blue and white cartons, are available at Khartoum pharmacies. So are other El Shifa antibiotics and drugs to treat ulcers and tuberculosis.

``The spectrum of drugs they produce is very wide. No other factory can produce all of it. There will be a loss,″ said Mona Hamid, a doctor at Khartoum’s Radiation and Isotope Center.

Among its products was Shifazole, an antibiotic to treat parasites in animals. In January, the factory won a $199,000 contract to ship 100,000 cartons to Iraq under a U.N. exemption to sanctions imposed in 1990, U.N. documents show. White cartons of the antibiotic were scattered in the rubble.

The shipment was to be sent to Iraq by October, said Alamaddin Al Shibli, the factory’s export manager. The company began exporting medicine this year to nearby Yemen and was scheduled to send a shipment of veterinary medicine to Chad by month’s end, he said.

On Sunday, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was asked on CNN’s ``Late Edition″ why no evidence of anything but commercial pharmaceuticals is evident in the wreckage of the plant.

To protect intelligence methods and sources, Berger refused to describe ``physical evidence″ the government has of a dual role but said, ``I have no question, the intelligence community has no question, that that factory was used to manufacture a chemical used in making nerve gas.″

The plant was owned by Salah Idris, a Sudanese businessmen who has homes in London, Saudi Arabia and Khartoum, according to his lawyer, Ghazi Suleiman. He denies Idris ever met Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire the United States says is connected to the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7.

U.S. officials contend the Khartoum factory belonged to a corporation in which bin Laden had a stake.

Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, a suspect in the embassy bombings, reportedly told investigators he worked for bin Laden. Odeh was arrested in Pakistan the day of the bombings and was returned to Nairobi a week later.

``He is my leader, and I obey his orders,″ Odeh was quoted as saying in this week’s edition of Newsweek magazine.

Idris was in London when the attack occurred, said Suleiman, who himself is one of Sudan’s most prominent opposition figures.

``He didn’t believe it at first, and he thought the news was wrong. He was really taken by surprise,″ Suleiman said.

Idris, described as charming and apolitical, purchased the plant in March 1998, Suleiman said.

There are no signs of secrecy at the plant. Two prominent signs along the road point to the factory, and foreigners have been allowed to visit the site at all hours. Plant employees deny any components of chemical weapons were made.

``(Take) any chemical (and) you can produce poison out of it, but you need special utilities and specialized personnel and, (on) top of all, lots of secrecy,″ Shibli said. ``This factory was open to everyone.″

Doctors differ on the impact of the plant’s destruction.

Most agreed the products could be purchased from other plants in Khartoum or abroad. But Honowa Hamad, a Khartoum pharmacist, said prices of imported medicine could be three times higher or more.