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U.S. Bioweapons Talks Shocker

A 144-nation conference on germ warfare broke down in disarray Friday after the United States shocked other delegations with a last-minute proposal to kill off efforts to put teeth into a global ban on biological weapons.

But the long-serving chairman of efforts to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention said the decision to suspend talks for one year would give a chance for the significance of recent anthrax attacks in the United States to sink in.

“Too little time has elapsed since the anthrax incident,” said Ambassador Tibor Toth, the Hungarian diplomat who has overseen nearly a decade of efforts to strengthen the treaty.

“There is a need to think it over,” said Toth. He said he hoped that by the time negotiations resume next November, governments will have been able to digest the significance of the distribution of the toxin through the mails.

Just minutes before the end of the three-week conference, the United States moved to declare “terminated” the negotiations aimed at developing an inspection system to search for any violators.

The negotiations have been effectively suspended anyway since last summer, when the United States pulled out of talks on a 210-page draft protocol, saying the inspection system wouldn't work and would expose U.S. secrets to enemies and rivals.

But the last-minute move in the closed-door negotiating session took everyone by surprise, even close allies who had been consulting with the United States all day, said diplomats.

“It left everybody shocked and stunned,” said Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood. He said a large number of delegates took the floor “and they almost in the same words described it as completely unacceptable.”

The 15-nation European Union issued a statement saying it “deeply regretted” what happened to the talks.

“In view of the special situation resulting from the terror attacks of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks the European Union entered the work of the conference with pragmatism and realism,” it said.

But U.S. Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said the proposal had been made “because this is the last day, and that's when you negotiate. We had foreshadowed for weeks that this was coming.”

Other countries said they hoped to leave the protocol untouched in hopes that one day the United States would have a change of heart and agree to rejoin talks.

Following the U.S. proposal delegates agreed to suspend the talks until Nov. 11, 2002.

Toth said the collapse came after negotiators had agreed on 95 percent of a final declaration of about 20 pages summing up the status of the convention.

But they still had to respond to the U.S. demand that the focus be put on countries that fail to comply with the treaty.

“We made substantial progress at this meeting in putting the issue of compliance with the convention at the front of people's attention,” Bolton said. /That remains the central point for us in strengthening the convention, and we're going to continue to work on that until next November.”

The U.S. government has singled out Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iran and Sudan as being at various stages of violating the treaty.

The United States has proposed wording calling “upon noncompliant BWC states parties to terminate their offensive biological weapons programs and comply fully with their obligations.”

The United States suggests using public discussion of violations to put pressure on errant countries to come into line, and possibly relying on the U.N. secretary-general and Security Council to enforce the treaty.

The review conference was called to assess how the treaty has been performing over the past five years.

Negotiators at least agreed to refer to the anthrax-tainted letters that have led to the deaths of five people in the United States in the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

“The conference condemns the use of all biological agents or toxins, including anthrax, as tools of terrorism and finds such acts reprehensible,” the draft declaration said.

The Cold War-era treaty was drawn up without enforcement provisions because no one at the time seriously considered that any country would try to use biological weapons.

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