Teams from the United Nations, the United States and Britain are quietly setting up bases in Libya for the purpose of scrapping Tripoli's programs for weapons of mass destruction, diplomats said Tuesday.
The diplomats said on condition of anonymity that U.S. and British weapons experts — including specialists on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons — began arriving this past weekend. They also said members of a separate team from the International Atomic Energy Agency — the U.N. nuclear watchdog — were gathering in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
"The idea is to move quickly," one of the diplomats said, speaking specifically of plans to dismantle Libya's nuclear program. "Those involved expect to be well on the way to accomplishing our goal within weeks."
Confirming the presence of an IAEA team, agency spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said experts "arrived yesterday and they are at work today, verifying the details," of Libya's nuclear programs.
"More experts are to follow over the coming weeks," he added.
In London, Britain's Foreign Office said the country was "prepared to offer assistance with the dismantlement of Libya's program" but declined to say whether British experts were in the North African nation.
After Libya volunteered last month to give up its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons or weapons programs, experts from the IAEA, United States and Britain went to Tripoli to take inventory and discuss the details of their destruction. But there was disagreement over who would oversee the scrapping of Libya's nuclear program.
That squabble appeared resolved Monday after IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei met U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, a critic of the IAEA policy on Libya, and William Ehrman, Bolton's British counterpart.
After the meeting, ElBaradei said his agency was given the role of establishing the scope and content of Libya's nuclear program. Once IAEA verification was complete, American and British experts would remove any suspect materials, he said.
Diplomats said the IAEA also claimed the right to verify that all contentious equipment and material had been removed or rendered unusable.
The IAEA had insisted it be in charge on nuclear issues. But Bush administration officials said American and British experts should lead in identifying and destroying Tripoli's nuclear weapons program because U.S.-British talks with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi led to his decision to renounce it.
Differing characterizations of the state of Libya's program had fueled the dispute. The IAEA has said Libya was nowhere near producing a nuclear weapon, while Washington and London contended Tripoli was further along than the agency realized.
Both sides seemed happy Monday to put the disputes behind them.
"It was a very productive meeting. I think we're on the same page with the IAEA on this very important project," Bolton said after the session at the U.S. mission in Vienna.
ElBaradei called the meeting "very constructive."
"We have agreement on what needs to be done," he said. "The agency's role is very clear — that we need to do the verification. A good part of the program needs to be eliminated, it needs to be moved out, and we clearly need the British and American support with logistics."