Hundreds May Have Been Killed in Iraqi Missile Plant Explosion
NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Many sources report an explosion Aug. 17 at an Iraqi missile plant south of Baghdad and some put the death toll at more than 700, but Iraq’s obsessively secret government has said nothing.
Western diplomats reached by telephone Wednesday in Baghdad, capital of Iraq, confirmed an explosion occurred at the huge missile complex but said they had no details.
No information was available on what caused the explosion, but there was no immediate indication of sabotage.
In London, the daily Independent quoted diplomats and Middle East sources Wednesday as saying 700 people were killed, including Egyptian engineers helping the Iraqis develop a new missile.
An official of the rebel Patriotic Union of Kurdistan reported by telephone that sources in Iraq said 700 bodies were removed from the plant and the casualty toll might reach 2,500 dead and wounded. The official, known to The Associated Press, asked that his name and location be concealed.
A British Broadcasting Corp. report said Egypt’s Defense Ministry confirmed the explosion, but an army general at the ministry said privately: ″I have no knowledge of an explosion or of Egyptian wounded coming to Cairo from Iraq.″
The Independent said the casualties included Egyptian personnel who were flown to Cairo in three Egyptian air force transports Aug. 18.
Iraq, with Egyptian help, is believed to be developing a modified version of Argentina’s medium-range Condor 2, which the Iraqis call the Badr 2000, at the plant 40 miles south of Baghdad.
The Independent quoted Egyptian sources as saying Egyptian casualties were taken to the Maadi military hospital in Cairo. The report said the hospital was closed to civilians Aug. 19 and specialists in skin grafts, burns and respiratory ailments were brought in.
A senior official of the hospital told the The Associated Press on Wednesday it had not been closed to civilians. He denied reports that large numbers of Egyptian casualties from Iraq had been taken there.
According to the Kurdish rebel official, the explosion started a fire that destroyed at least 30 percent of the missile complex, which is said to include laboratories, factories and living quarters for workers.
Several reports said the Iraqis used firefighting aircraft to fight the blaze but could not bring it under control until Aug. 25. How many people worked at the plant was not known.
Sources linked to other Kurdish rebel groups said the facility included a chemical weapons factory and that some casualties had wounds consistent with chemical agents.
There was no independent confirmation, but Iraq is known to produce poison gases. The United Nations cited Iraq several times for using chemical weapons, outlawed under a 1925 Geneva protocol, during the eight-year war with Iran.
Western military analysts have said for months that Iraq was developing the Badr 2000 to carry nuclear or chemical warheads up to 1,000 kilometers, or more than 600 miles.
The Kurdish sources said the missile complex was protected by an elite military force and covered nearly 1,000 square miles, which indicated it might include a test-firing range.
Israel fears such weapons as the Badr 2000, which could reach targets within its borders, will erode its traditional technological superiority over its Arab neighbors. Its air force destroyed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in June 1981, which the Israelis said soon would be capable of producing weapons.
Officials in Israel say West German, French and Italian companies have been involved in the Badr 2000 project.
Iraq has warned Israel against another air strike at strategic facilities and has tightened anti-aircraft missile defenses at key installations.