TRIPOLI, Libya — U.N. nuclear weapons chief Mohamed ElBaradei met Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi Monday and praised Tripoli for cooperating with teams conducting first-ever inspections of its atomic weapons program.
“Libya has shown a good deal of cooperation, a good deal of openness,” said ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
He led a team of inspectors invited to the North African country to see how far it had progressed toward developing a bomb and to make sure it went no further.
"It was an opportunity for us to see what they have--to ask questions about supplies, quantities and development," said ElBaradei after the team visited four sites.
NBC's Keith Miller reported that according to inspectors the Gaddafi regime has spent 15 years and millions of dollars attempting to develop a nuclear bomb.
But even with time and money the program was still in the initial stages. There were no weapons.
The components necessary to enrich uranium to make the weapons were boxed up and stored at several sites around the capital, Tripoli.
Western intelligence agencies say the U.N. inspectors are likely to find a treasure chest of clues in the components and hope the evidence will reveal who supplied Libya with the parts.
"It's all black market middle people," ElBaradei said. "It's obviously a sophisticated network. We need to work with all those involved, to check the source of supply."
U.S. intelligence officials say there are signs pointing to Pakistan as the source of nuclear know how and technology being exported to countries like Iran and North Korea and possibly Libya, Miller reported.
A new chapter
In a shock move following months of secret talks with U.S. and British officials, Libya said this month it was abandoning efforts to obtain nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Before leaving Libya Monday, ElBaradei met Gaddafi, who reiterated his commitment to eliminating weapons of mass destruction.
Libya had also agreed to sign the Additional Protocol to the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, allowing more intrusive snap inspections.
“Libya committed today to act as if the protocol was in force,” ElBaradei told reporters.
After Libya’s sudden renunciation of banned weapons programs, President Bush -- who has made tackling proliferation of such weapons a top priority -- promised to reward Libya with “far better” U.S. relations.
ElBaradei said Libya’s decision to come clean about its weapons programs would be rewarded.
“There are talks now of mainstreaming (Libya’s) relations with the U.S., with Europe,” he said.
“(Gaddafi) emphasized that Libya is looking at a different chapter in its relations with the international community, with the West. He put a lot of emphasis on the importance of international assistance for Libya,” ElBaradei told Reuters.
But a senior U.S. official warned the IAEA against taking credit for Libya’s new policy, saying the U.N. body had completely missed its weapons program and ElBaradei’s trip was partly a damage control exercise and a publicity gimmick.
“ElBaradei is only there because of us and the Brits,” the official told Reuters. “With all due respect, what he is saying about Libya’s nuclear program is based on far less information than we already have.”
“There will be additional negotiations and disclosures with the U.S. and the UK to which Libya actually made its commitments,” the official added.
The other IAEA inspectors, who will stay on until Thursday, carried out their first full day of inspections Sunday, visiting four nuclear sites near the capital Tripoli that the U.N. body had never seen before.
Libya, long on the U.S. list of sponsors of terrorism and treated as a pariah by the West, displayed dismantled and boxed uranium enrichment centrifuges -- machines which can purify the radioactive material for use in weapons or as nuclear fuel.
IAEA officials are looking for clues as to who helped Iran get its enrichment technology. Both Libya and Iran say they got centrifuges on the black market.
ElBaradei said the enrichment program was “at a very initial stage.” He described the centrifuges as sophisticated and of a design the inspectors recognized, though he declined to say if they were similar to those acquired by Iran.
He said the inspectors had already interviewed several Libyan scientists and would visit more facilities over the next few days. He told Reuters Gaddafi had “underlined his commitment to a policy of full transparency” to him.
Other U.N.-linked agencies plan soon to check Libya’s possible biological or chemical weapons programs.
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