RABTA, Libya — Libyan officials, attempting to disprove U.S. allegations that they are building a large chemical weapons factory, took Western reporters to see the facility Saturday but succeeded only in increasing suspicions that they had something to hide.
These suspicions were magnified when, less than an hour after returning from a whirlwind after-dark ride through the factory complex at Rabta, 40 miles southwest of Tripoli, the journalists were informed that they were being expelled from Libya aboard specially chartered flights to Malta.
Authorities later relented and told the journalists they could remain until this morning and leave on regularly scheduled flights to destinations of their choice.
Surprise Kadafi Visit
Earlier Saturday, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi urged officials of the incoming Bush Administration in Washington to hold direct talks with his government. Making a surprise visit to Tripoli's waterfront Al Kabir Hotel where reporters were staying, Kadafi said:
"The Bush Administration must sit face to face with Libya so that we can agree on the issues in dispute."
Kadafi himself told the journalists that they would be allowed to see the Rabta factory, but the frustrating visit that the journalists later made turned out to be anything but a close inspection.
A number of intriguing discrepancies, while not conclusive in themselves, also raised many more questions about the nature of the factory than the brief and ultimately farcical tour of the facility answered.
Turning off the main highway southwest of Tripoli and onto the access road to the plant, the reporters passed two military checkpoints, at least one large radar installation and several anti-aircraft missile sites perched on the bluffs above the isolated desert plain where the factory is located.
The reporters were first driven to a staging area about a mile from the plant, where several hundred Libyan citizens staged an anti-American demonstration in front of television cameras.
Libyan officials said that thousands of ordinary Libyans have flocked to the plant in recent days to demonstrate against the United States and to defend the factory against a possible attack.
One demonstrator, however, glancing around quickly to make sure no officials would overhear him, conceded that he had been ordered to come to the plant. Many others appeared less enthusiastic about "sacrificing themselves in the defense of their achievements" than Libyan Information Minister Rajab abu Dabbous had said they were last Friday.
This appeared to lend credence to suggestions by Western diplomats here that the Libyans were obliging civilians to move into the area around the plant in an effort to deter the United States from attacking it.
The reasons for the heavy defenses surrounding the isolated site, which appeared to be inconsistent with what the Libyans say is the nature of the plant, also have been questioned by diplomats here.
"I don't know for sure, but if it is a pharmaceutical plant, why is it so isolated?" one Western envoy asked. "You would think that it would be located near a hospital or in a city. No other factory of this type has missile sites around it."
The reporters saw several truckloads of foreign construction workers leaving the plant as they arrived. They were not allowed to talk to the workers, but most of them appeared to be from Thailand. Signs in Thai were posted in the cafeteria where the workers eat, and one of them nodded affirmatively from a passing truck when asked if he was from Thailand.
Washington has named companies from West Germany, Japan and South Korea as having helped Libya build the plant, but this was the first evidence that foreign workers are also involved.
The reporters met in the cafeteria with the plant's medical director, Dr. Ali Ibrahim, who repeated the official Libyan position that only medicines and other pharmaceuticals for civilian use are being made there.
From the cafeteria, located nearly a mile from the main facility,the visitors boarded three buses that, only after nightfall, whisked them through the plant without making any stops.
Although it was difficult in the darkness and from the moving buses to examine the facility, it appeared to consist of at least half a dozen white and windowless rectangular buildings two and three stories tall.
Standing away from the plant, but apparently also a part of the facility, were a number of large, round, concrete-based storage tanks, arranged in clusters of four. Soldiers were encamped in tents around the storage tanks.