TRIPOLI, Libya — The Libyan regime has fortified its defenses around a factory that the Reagan Administration believes is being built to manufacture chemical weapons and has sent large numbers of civilians there in what appears to be an effort to deter the United States from attacking it.
Libyan officials said that busloads of civilians have been converging on the factory at Rabta, a desert town about 40 miles southwest of Tripoli, for the past several days.
"Doctors and nurses and ordinary masses of people have gone to the plant and remain there to defend their achievements, even if it means sacrificing themselves," Rajab Abu Dabous, the Libyan Information Minister, told a news conference in Tripoli on Friday night.
Other Libyan officials told reporters that defenses around the plant, which was heavily fortified to begin with, have been increased still further. They did not elaborate.
Although Tripoli itself appears outwardly calm, diplomats based here said Libya's concern that the United States may attack the plant has become increasingly evident since two Libyan MIG-23s were shot down by Navy F-14s from the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy off the Libyan coast Wednesday.
Disputing the U.S. account of the incident, Dabous repeated the Libyan position that the MIGs were on routine reconnaissance patrol when they were "attacked by 14 American aircraft." He called U.S. Navy videotapes of the incident "a fabrication."
The Libyan minister also reiterated Libya's denials that the factory at Rabta is being built to manufacture chemical weapons, saying that it is merely a civilian plant for the production of medicines and other pharmaceuticals.
"We have asserted time and time again that this is a pharmaceutical plant . . . and we want to affirm again that what we say is the truth. It is a pharmaceutical plant and nothing more."
He added that the more than 200 foreign journalists who have converged on Libya since Wednesday's clash over the Mediterranean would be allowed to visit the Rabta factory to "prove that what we say is true."
However, he did not say when the journalists will be allowed to tour the facility and attempts to do so on Friday were frustrated by Libyan officials with a combination of artifice and threats.
Believing they were to be taken to the plant, about 100 foreign reporters boarded two Ministry of Information buses in the morning for what turned out instead to be a daylong tour of a Roman archeological site known as Leptis Major, 75 miles east of the capital. Two reporters who tried to break away from the group and return to Tripoli by taxi were caught and threatened with arrest.
"They (Libyan security) will stop you and take you away where we won't be able to find you," one official warned.
In the end, the journalists were forced to tour the archeological site, attend an official luncheon and later go on a long and circuitous drive through the Libyan countryside that ensured their absence from Tripoli until well after nightfall.
While it was not possible, under the circumstances, to obtain a clear picture of Libya's preparations for its latest conflict with the United States, diplomats in Tripoli said that several security measures have been taken over the past few days.
Military reserves have been mobilized and security forces put on heightened alert, they said. Additional anti-aircraft emplacements have also been installed around the military barracks in Tripoli where the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, lives, witnesses said. The barracks were heavily damaged in the U.S. air strikes against Libya two years ago.
Evidently fearing a repetition of those attacks now, many Libyans have reportedly fled the capital for summer residences or to stay with friends or relatives living elsewhere, the diplomats added.
Somber, Restrained Mood
Still, the mood in the capital appeared more somber and restrained than it did in April, 1986, when several weeks of U.S.-Libyan tensions culminated in the U.S. raids against military targets in Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for what the Reagan Administration then alleged was Libyan involvement in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. servicemen.
"There is an underlying tension now, but it's nothing like it was in '86," one Western diplomat said.
The last time, the preparations and the deliberately incited tensions here had an almost theatrical overtone as Kadafi sought to use the confrontation with the United States to rally support and shore up his sagging popularity at home.
This time, however, the situation is dramatically different. For one thing, their experience two years ago proved to the Libyans that U.S. threats to attack have to be taken seriously. This is why, say diplomats, Libya has been appealing to other countries to use their influence with the United States to prevent a military attack on the chemical plant.