German-flagged ship "BBC China" carried Libyan centrifuge shipment in Sept.
- Washington Post
Ship Incident May Have Swayed Libya
Centrifuges Intercepted in September
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2004; Page A18
U.S. and British intelligence services discovered in
late September that a freighter bound for Libya was
hauling thousands of parts for centrifuges, a key
component for producing nuclear weapons, senior U.S.
officials said yesterday. Officials said the
interception of the cargo, worth tens of millions of
dollars, was a factor in pressuring Libya to give up
its deadliest weapons programs.
The shipment was headed from Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates, an interim transshipment point, aboard a
German ship. With help from the German government and
the German shipping company, the United States was
able to get the freighter, BBC China, diverted to a
port in southern Italy shortly after it passed through
the Suez Canal.
Officials boarded the ship in Italy in early October
and seized the cargo, which was not listed on the
ship's manifest, U.S. officials said. The craft was
less than two days from docking in Libya.
The Bush administration believes the intelligence coup
accelerated Libya's cooperation. Although secret talks
on Libya's programs for producing weapons of mass
destruction had begun about six months earlier,
Moammar Gaddafi's government had not yet given a date
for U.S. and British intelligence to visit
weapons-development sites. After the interdiction,
U.S. and British inspectors were in Libya within two
weeks, U.S. officials said.
Other U.S. officials, however, said they were
concerned at the time that the seizure might undermine
the attempt to win Libya's cooperation. "Quite the
contrary. It could have derailed the effort," said a
well-placed U.S. official who spoke on the condition
The operation, details of which were reported
yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, was the first
interdiction under the new Proliferation Security
Initiative, an agreement among 11 countries to stop
and search planes and ships suspected of carrying
banned weapons or missile technology. Seizure of the
cargo proves the initiative's importance as a new tool
in tracking and curtailing the spread of weapons
technology, U.S. officials said.
"It's clearly a success for the proliferation
initiative, but it's also an allied success,
especially for the Germans and Italians," a senior
administration official said. He described the German
government and the shipping company as "extremely
The secret shipment also offered insight into Libya's
arms programs. Although U.S. intelligence was aware of
Libya's chemical weapons program, Washington was
surprised by Tripoli's ongoing interest in developing
The administration is reluctant to provide details of
the operation or the source of the parts. U.S.
officials said the shipment did not come from
Pakistan, which has been linked to sales of nuclear
technology to other countries. "The technology we're
talking about was stolen years ago from Urenco, a
European consortium. It was used in Pakistan to enrich
uranium, but it was also used elsewhere. There's a
black market in this material," the senior U.S.
A European official said a private Pakistani arms
specialist is being investigated.
After the discovery, the United States tracked the
German freighter, U.S. officials said. Most of the
operation was conducted by U.S. intelligence with no
U.S. military involvement. U.S. officials boarded the
ship after it docked in Taranto, Italy.
U.S. officials aren't sure why Gaddafi was reaching
out to the international community and pledging
privately to disarm as his government was acquiring a
large shipment of weapons-development equipment.
Centrifuges of the kind found on the German ship can
be used to develop weapons-grade uranium for use in
nuclear weapons. On Sunday, U.N. investigators in
Libya were shown dozens of centrifuges and other
equipment, although no evidence was found that the
country had enriched uranium. Mohamed ElBaradei,
director of the International Atomic Energy Agency,
said Monday the equipment indicated that Libya was at
an "early stage" of its weapons program.
Staff writers Dana Priest and Thomas E. Ricks
contributed to this report.
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