U.s., Bonn Exploring Refueling Capacity of Libyan Jet Fighters

Intelligence services in the United States and West Germany are continuing to investigate whether West German firms have been helping Libya acquire the technology for midair refueling of its bombers, which would allow it to attack Israel and other countries with chemical weapons.

Neither Bonn nor Washington has been able to confirm that Libya now has the capability to refuel its warplanes in midair, officials of both countries said here Thursday.

The Libyan planes, manufactured in France and the Soviet Union, cannot presently reach Israel and return, without landing to refuel.

Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Oborn, a Pentagon spokesman, would not say whether the United States believes Libya has the midair refueling capability, but cited press reports “that they have the necessary equipment.”

Oborn said that even if Libya has the equipment, it would also need time to train pilots to conduct successful refueling. Using such equipment “does not come naturally to the pilot,” he said.

A spokesman at the West German Embassy here said the inquiry into refueling is part of Bonn’s investigation into the participation of West German firms in helping Libya convert a pharma-ceutical plant into one that could manufacture poison gas.

He referred to the 18-page report on the matter his government issued in January. He said the government was now examining “whether one or several members of the federal armed forces were involved in the midair project in Libya during or after their period of service.”

William Webster, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was asked about the participation of German officers by Sen. Jesse Helms (R.N.C.) during an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

Webster said he would prefer to discuss this in closed session, but told Helms, “you’re right on target.”

Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said Thursday that the Bush administration still believes that Libya is using the plant in the desert at Rabta, south of Tripoli, to manufacture nerve gas and mustard gas.

He said a single inspection of the plant would not prove that it is only being used for pharmaceuticals, since a chemical weapons plant “can be easily modified to appear to be a pharmaceutical production facility.

“All traces of chemical weapons production can be erased on short notice,” or within 24 hours, he said.

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