BONN — West German customs police staged raids Wednesday on the offices of three companies and the homes of a dozen executives and found evidence of their involvement in supplying an alleged chemical weapons plant in Libya, according to the prosecutor in charge of the investigation.
Agents of the Federal Customs Office came away from the morning raids with "sufficient indications that they (the firms and executives) took part in illegal exports to Libya," said Werner Botz, chief prosecutor for the southwestern district of Offenburg, which is supervising a criminal inquiry into the Libya affair.
One of the main targets of Wednesday's raid, according to the Offenburg prosecutor's office, was Imhausen-Chemie, situated in nearby Lahr, in the Rhine Valley at the edge of the Black Forest.
The Imhausen firm was said by U.S. intelligence and various news media investigations to have played a vital role in lining up materials and chemicals from other suppliers for the Libyan plant. Botz said a truck load of documents was taken from Imhausen's headquarters.
Botz would not identify the two other companies raided, but sources said they were two subsidiaries of Imhausen. A spokesman for one firm, Gesellschaft fuer Automation at Bochum, said its offices were searched.
The home of the firm's chairman, Juergen Hippenstiel-Imhausen, also was among those searched for evidence, according to the investigators.
The raids came after this month's disclosures that West German chemical firms--some knowingly and some unknowingly--had supplied equipment and expertise for the plant at Rabta, 40 miles southwest of Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
The United States says the complex is designed to manufacture chemical weapons. Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi has denied that, saying the plant was built to produce only pharmaceuticals.
The West German government's initial denials that any of the country's chemical firms were involved and its very public denunciation of U.S. evidence of their implication as inadequate caused a rift between Bonn and Washington. It has also resulted in the most severe scandal in the 6 1/2-year-old administration of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
On Wednesday, Kohl admitted to the Bundestag (Parliament) committee on foreign affairs that the controversy had severely damaged West German foreign relations.
Opposition parties harshly criticized Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and other ministers for failing to answer questions on the issue at the hearing, accusing the government of admitting only what it could no longer hush up.
International commentators as well as those in the federal republic called attention to the laxity of West German chemical export regulations--and also to Germany's especially sensitive history with poison gas. Germany was the first country to use gas as a weapon in World War I, and then killed millions with gas at death camps during the Holocaust in World War II.
More than 30 West German chemical, steel, engineering and other firms have been named in media reports as exporters to the Rabta project. An investigation into charges that West German firms also played an important part in building a chemical weapons plant near Samarra in Iraq is also under way.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press, citing a U.S. government source, reported Wednesday that West German investigators are exploring leads that the giant Siemens technology firm assisted in the construction of the Libyan plant by providing electronic control equipment and telephone gear. The U.S. government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 10 tons of telephone equipment was mislabeled as being bound for the Hong Kong telephone exchange and instead apparently was shipped to Libya under an expired license.
Siemens has denied any wrongdoing.
Offenburg chief prosecutor Botz said that Hippenstiel-Imhausen was present when officials searched his office Wednesday.
Hippenstiel-Imhausen initially denied that his firm had any connection with Libya, but since news reports of evidence to the contrary began mounting, he has been unavailable for comment.
The spokesman for the Offenburg prosecutor's office, Hubertus Voegele, said that no arrests have been made in the burgeoning investigation.
In the most recent reports, the national magazine Stern said that an Imhausen employee has told investigators that the company collaborated with a subsidiary of the large state-owned steel group, Salzgitter, to devise blueprints for building a chemical weapons plant at Rabta.
The manager, identified by West German television as Klaus Hesse, said the two firms were fully aware of the lethal nature of the plant and had kept details secret for that reason.
Salzgitter has admitted providing, through Imhausen, plans for building part of the plant but said it believed the plant was to be in Hong Kong, not Libya. Two weeks ago, Belgian authorities arrested the owner of a shipping firm in Antwerp on charges of falsifying shipping documents, apparently to conceal shipments destined for Rabta by listing their destination as Hong Kong.
State prosecutor Benno Schulte confirmed the accuracy of the Stern report.