Perry Presses U.S. Charge Against Libya

John Lancaster - The Washington Post - April 4, 1996

CAIRO, April 3 - Defense Secretary William J. Perry declared today that the United States is determined to stop Libya from completing a new underground factory that he said is for producing chemical weapons, and might use military force to do so.

Perry told reporters he gave Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak evidence that the factory, dug into a mountain 40 miles southeast of Tripoli, is a chemical weapons plant and not, as Libya says, a water-irrigation system.

Asked whether the United States is contemplating use of force to destroy the plant, Perry replied, "I wouldn't rule anything out and I wouldn't rule anything in," according to Reuter news service.

"I showed [Mubarak] photographs and they demonstrate that the Libyans are not now producing chemical weapons but they have an extensive program underway to develop a chemical weapons production facility, and I provided him with some evidence to support that," Perry said during his visit.

Perry's comments suggested the United States may be prepared to stake its prestige on making sure the Libyan project is stopped, even at the risk of military conflict.

The United States, whose warplanes bombed Tripoli in 1986, accuses Libya of sponsoring international terrorism. Libya remains under U.S. economic sanctions for its refusal to turn over two suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, that that killed 270 people.

But as the United States attempts to build its case against Libya over the factory, it faces a ticklish diplomatic challenge here and in other Arab countries. On the one hand, the United States and Egypt are close military allies, a relationship demonstrated anew this week by Perry's pledge to provide Egypt with 21F-16 fighters on top of the 160 it already has.

At the same time, Egypt is careful to cultivate good relations with Libya, with which it shares a long border and a past history of conflict. Egyptian officials say that given the erratic nature of the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, they must be careful not to introduce new sources of tension into an already difficult relationship.

Moreover, there is considerable cross-border trade and Libya provides jobs for tens of thousands of Egyptians, whose remittances home are an important source of hard currency here. In 1994, U.S.-Egyptian relations hit a rough patch following disclosures that Egyptian businessmen had provided Libya with aircraft parts, in violation the U.N. sanctions. Egypt denied official knowledge of the sales.

Egypt has annoyed the United States by suggesting that the two Pan Am bombing suspects be tried in a country other than the United States or Britain, as a way of resolving the impasse over the sanctions.

If Egypt were to openly back the United States in its latest confrontation with Libya, Mubarak would likely pay dearly in terms of Egyptian and Arab public opinion. Many Egyptians were outraged by the U.S. bombing raid in 1986, for example.

In an indication of government sensitivity, news coverage of Perry's visit on state-run television tonight did not mention his remarks on Libya, dwelling instead on the F-16 sales and other matters.

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