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Libya signs pact allowing snap nuclear checks by UN agency

VIENNA -- Libya took a fresh stride toward international rehabilitation yesterday by signing an agreement allowing the United Nations atomic watchdog to conduct snap inspections of nuclear facilities.

"This is a step by Libya to be clean of all nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction," Scientific Research Minister Maatoug Mohammed Maatoug said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said: "Libya's decision could be, and should be, a first step toward an Africa and Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction, and at peace." Earlier, the IAEA's governing board passed a resolution praising Libya for dismantling its secret nuclear weapons program. It commended Tripoli to the UN Security Council.

Diplomats said the resolution noted Libya's past nuclear activities had put it in breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but applauded its disarmament.

The moves are seen as significant new steps by Libya, long branded by the West as a rogue state for sponsoring attacks like the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing, to reintegrate itself into the international community. Tripoli announced in December that it was abandoning all weapons of mass destruction programs and would cooperate with the IAEA, the United States, and Britain to dismantle them.

On Saturday, it dispatched a shipload to the United States containing what it said was all the equipment from its nuclear arms program, along with longer-range missiles and launchers.

The IAEA on Monday supervised an airlift to Russia of enriched uranium from a reactor near Tripoli. It said the metal was almost pure enough to be used in a nuclear weapon.

Asked whether there would be more shipments of uranium or nuclear-related equipment, Maatoug told reporters, "There's nothing still to be removed."

In recognition of Libya's efforts, President Bush's administration announced last month that it would allow US oil firms to begin negotiating to resume operations, long banned under US sanctions.

ExxonMobil said yesterday it was considering returning after a break of more than 17 years.

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