Nearly three months after the successful operation, the Bush administration confirmed on Wednesday interception of an illegal shipment of thousands of parts of uranium-enrichment equipment bound for Libya.
The seizure in early October sealed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's decision to dismantle his nuclear weapons program, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton plans to fly to London on New Year's Day to make plans with Britain for holding Gadhafi to his Dec. 19 pledge to dismantle.
There is an extensive black market that provided Libya with tens of millions of dollars in equipment, the U.S. official said, but there now is an aggressive program of interdicting delivery and the administration intends to pursue middlemen actively.
The intercepted parts were being delivered to Libya on a German-owned freighter that was diverted to an Italian port.
The United States and Britain plan to send experts to Libya in January to analyze the extent of Libya's nuclear program and its quest for biological and chemical weapons as well as modern missiles.
Top Bush administration officials are convinced the programs are far more extensive than outlined by the International Atomic Energy Agency and said this week that the United States and Britain would pursue their own joint program to uncover Libya's operation and hold Gadhafi to his promise to uproot development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as well as potent missiles.
The interception of centrifuge parts bound for Libya was first reported in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. The White House and State Department then confirmed the report with few details and no explanation why confirmation took nearly three months.
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, told The Associated Press Tuesday he did not want American or British help on the ground in Libya.
"As far as I'm concerned, we have the mandate, and we intend to do it alone," ElBaradei said.
But senior American officials confirmed an active U.S. and British role and said Libya's programs were far more extensive than the U.N. agency had disclosed.
"The IAEA is in there because of what we uncovered," said one U.S. official on condition of anonymity. "The Libyans came to us and the British."
The shipment originated in a Persian Gulf port, but the officials declined to identify the country Wednesday. Nor would they say which country or countries may have supplied the centrifuge parts, citing ongoing investigations.
In September, British and American intelligence authorities learned a German freighter was to depart the Gulf port bearing centrifuge equipment, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The intelligence agencies alerted their German counterparts, who contacted the ship's owner.
The German shipper, BBC Chartering and Logistic GmbH, ordered the ship to divert to the Italian port. There, British and American authorities discovered the centrifuge parts, which can be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
Per Peterson, a vice president at the company's Houston office said his office "is not involved in this and we had nothing to do with this."
He referred inquires to BBC Chartering and Logistic GmbH headquarters in Leer, Germany.
While uranium-enrichment is also a step in the process of producing nuclear energy, Libya has no such civilian program. Libya admitted the equipment was for its nuclear weapons program, a senior U.S. official said.
The seizure came as part of a U.S.-led international effort to halt commerce in weapons of mass destruction that was launched in May.
In mid-December, officials from 16 countries held talks at the state Department on developing skills to block the transfer of missiles and weapons technology.
Six exercises in early 2004 are planned, led by the United States, France, Germany, Poland, and two by Italy. The joint efforts involves interdiction at sea, in the air and on land.
The main goal is to prevent North Korea and other rogue states from spreading and acquiring weapons and technology. Russia and China did not attend the talks but agreed to support the program, a senior U.S. official said.
By Barry Schweid
By Barry Schweid