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Allies find 'huge' chemical weapons factory: Report

US forces on Sunday found a 'huge' chemical weapons factory near the Iraqi city of Najaf, Fox News says.

india Updated: Mar 24, 2003 14:56 IST

US forces on Sunday found what they believe to be a "huge" chemical weapons factory near the Iraqi city of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, US networks and the Jerusalem Post reported.

Fox News and the Jerusalem Post, which had a reporter travelling with the US forces, cited unidentified Pentagon officials as saying the facility was seized by the First Brigade of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division as soldiers advanced north toward Baghdad.

About 30 Iraqi troops, including their commanding general, surrendered to US forces as they overtook the installation, apparently used to produce chemical weapons, the Jerusalem Post reported.

While the Iraqi troops surrendered without a fight, one US soldier was lightly wounded when a booby-trap exploded as he was clearing the sheetmetal-lined facility, the report said.

The 100-acre complex is adjacent to military barracks and surrounded by an electric fence, the report said.

It was not immediately clear what chemicals were being produced at the facility, but both reports said the Iraqis tried to camouflage the facility so it looked like the surrounding desert and would not be spotted from the air.

ABC News cited one unidentified official as saying of the captured Iraqi general: "He is a potential gold mine of evidence about the weapons Saddam Hussein said he does not have."

Asked to comment on the reports, a Central Command official said in an e-mail: "While media reports are premature, we are looking into sites of interest."

US defence officials urged caution about the reports.

"Confirmation of any (chemical weapons) site would require a thorough investigation and take some time," said one defence official, who asked not to be named. "It may turn out to be a chemical weapons site, or it may be a site that was producing something else."

Earlier on Sunday, US Lt. Gen. John Abizaid told reporters at Central Command headquarters in Qatar that there had been reports that some Iraqi units in the vicinity of Al Kut "may have some type of chemical weapons."

Abizaid refused to confirm the report in the Jerusalem Post about the Najaf discovery.

"I will not confirm that report," he said in response to a question. "We have an Iraqi general officer, two Iraqi general officers that we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information."

Fox News reported from the United Nations late on Sunday that UN weapons inspectors had been unaware of any factory in the area of Najaf that might be capable of producing chemical weapons, citing a spokesman for the inspectors.

The United States and Britain launched their war on Iraq last week to oust President Saddam Hussein because they said he had stockpiles of banned chemical and biological weapons.

First Published: Mar 23, 2003 13:30 IST