WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Libya is building a subterranean chemical-weapons plant capable of producing and storing poison gas, according to government officials.
The underground factory remains disguised as part of a water project, but intelligence officials believe its purpose is to augment a vast above-ground chemical complex whose existence was exposed by the West nearly four years ago.
The new project was described by administration officials yesterday as a source of significant concern, particularly because of Libya's failure last month to sign a United Nations convention banning chemical weapons.
Libya had indicated it would sign the convention.
The State Department refused yesterday to provide details about the new findings, citing the sensitivity of intelligence sources. But the officials used strong language to condemn what they described as Libya's ongoing chemical-weapons efforts.
"We are convinced that Libya is still in the chemical-weapons business," said State Department spokeswoman Wendy Chamberlin.
Libya has been a persistent source of unease because of its support for terrorism, including the 1988 bombing of a Pan American airliner over Scotland.
Libya's first poison-gas site, in Rabta, about 25 miles southwest of Tripoli, was damaged by fire in March 1990. The Bush administration said the fire might have been a hoax, and officials said yesterday that Rabta remained the largest chemical-weapons complex in the Third World.
The new complex is deep in a hillside near Tarhunah, about 40 miles southeast of Tripoli, the officials said.
For months Washington has become increasingly troubled by Libya's conduct. The director of Central Intelligence, Robert M. Gates, warned in a speech on Dec. 15 that Libya "has no intention of giving up its chemical-weapons program," and Bush administration officials monitored the project closely during their final days.