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Sudan says U.S. admits its attack was a mistake Back-channel contact is alleged; U.S. stands by chemical evidence


KHARTOUM, Sudan -- A Sudanese government minister said yesterday that the United States has approached Khartoum through intermediaries with the suggestion that it had been mistaken in the missile attack against an alleged chemical weapons plant here Thursday.

"We have been receiving signals and suggestions by third parties that the United States wishes to take a milder position toward Sudan, presumably because of the mistake they have permitted," Information Minister Ghazi Salah el-Din told reporters yesterday.

"We would like any rectification to the situation to be as visible as the aggression itself," he said, refusing to identify the third parties.

But, in any case, Salah el-Din said: "We do not entertain behind-the-scene transactions with the United States government. If they wish to remedy this situation, then they have to apologize publicly and they have to compensate every single individual and the country at large for their aggression."

A Clinton administration official would not comment on possible approaches to Sudan since the United States struck at an alleged chemical weapons plant on the outskirts of the city. But the official stood by the position that the target was such a facility, and not solely a pharmaceutical plant, as the Sudanese say.

"We stand by the evidence we have regarding this facility and the potential danger posed by this facility in Sudan," said White House spokesman P. J. Crowley.

The New York Times, in this morning's editions, quotes two Clinton administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying that in the weeks leading up to Thursday's strike, the United States had obtained a sample of a critical chemical used in the making of VX, a deadly nerve agent.

The officials declined to name the chemical, which the administration has classified, the Times reported, but they said it had no other known use that would explain its presence in the plant, called Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co.

The latest Sudanese declaration came as the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum is saying it has proof that the United States had no evidence to justify its strike.

Sudan has asked the United Nations to investigate the claim and said yesterday that it would welcome United Nations inspectors to check the plant.

"We want the United Nations to investigate U.S. allegations that this factory contains chemical weapons," he said. "But we will not accept other inspections because that would distract world attention from the issue of U.S. aggression."

The Sudanese government also denied that the plant had any connection to Osama bin Laden, the Afghanistan-based Saudi millionaire tied by the United States to the bombings this month of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"Bin Laden never came near the factory, and there is no way that this factory could have produced chemical weapons," Salah el-Din said.

He scoffed at Washington for compelling Sudan to expel bin Laden from this country three years ago.

"We gave [U.S. officials] a piece of advice that they never followed. We told them: 'Don't send him out of Sudan because you will lose control over him,' " Salah el-Din said. "Now, the United States has ended up with war with an invisible enemy."

Phillip Borel, the chief U.N. representative in Sudan, and several journalists were taken on a tour of the plant yesterday, guided by Dr. Alamaddin al Shibli, export manager for the El Shifa plant.

"Fortunately, the evening shift was not working on Thursday. Otherwise, we would have lost personnel," he said.

The journalists and diplomats walked freely around the one-story complex on the northern outskirts of the city. They were encouraged to examine the pharmaceutical bottles, boxes and plastic containers that littered the site and to read their labels.

An acrid smell permeated the air. The pattern of destruction suggested to al Shibli that a "pinpointed, targeted missile" had -- hit the facility. Cars in an adjacent parking lot were untouched except for their shattered windshields. But the back wall of a nearby three-story office building had been blown away.

Brown medicine bottles lay in heaps, many still intact and containing some sort of liquid. Nearby, sophisticated-looking water purification equipment lay crushed and tossed on its side.

Al Shibli leaned down and picked up a white plastic jug with a green label that read "Shifazole."

"It's a treatment of parasites in animals, cattle, camels, sheep," he explained. The medication was to have been shipped to Iraq under the U.N.-approved oil for humanitarian assistance program, he said.

"Could the United Nations allow a factory for chemical weapons to send their products to Iraq?" he asked.

Al Shibli walked ahead, identifying company products littered on the ground -- medicines for malaria and diabetes, anti-rheumatoids, tetracycline.

He said raw materials for the medicines were imported and met British and American pharmacological specifications.

Industry Minister Badr el-Din Suleiman said at yesterday's briefing for reporters that the factory was a production and packaging facility. 'It cannot produce chemicals and it has not been licensed to do so," he said.

The plant was built a year and a half ago and was financed by Sudanese businessman Bashir Hassan Bashir with support from a Nairobi-based bank. The plant was sold in March to another Sudanese businessman, Salahuddin Idris, according to Information Minister Salah el-Din.

The plant employed 309 skilled laborers who provided for 3,000 family members. It accounted for $7.6 million of the country's $28 million annual manufacturing business and produced the only medicine for tuberculosis in the country, according to Health Minister Babo Nimer.

He held up documents identifying the raw materials imported, the medicinal and veterinary products manufactured, the equipment used and the history of the company ownership.

He offered to share the documents with anyone interested.

Sudan's defense of the plant has been bolstered by four professionals who helped design the factory. In recent days, the engineers -- three from Jordan, the other from Great Britain -- disputed the U.S. assertion that the plant was manufacturing a precursor to the deadly gas VX.

"The factory was designed to make medicines. It is impossible to change it to produce any other substance," Mohammed Abdul-Wahed said at a weekend news conference in Amman, Jordan.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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