Dangerous Iraq chemicals found stored at U.N.

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May 19, 2006
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By Evelyn Leopold 59 minutes ago

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations found potentially lethal vials of a chemical warfare agent, removed from Iraq a decade ago, in offices near its New York headquarters but officials said on Thursday there was no danger.

The FBI and New York police were called in to remove the substances and were on the site, across the street from U.N. headquarters on Thursday.

The materials included phosgene, an older generation chemical warfare agent, which could have been lethal if it had evaporated, the officials said.

Phosgene was used extensively during World War I as a choking agent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The vials in a small sealed metal container were discovered last Friday but only on Wednesday did the inspectors find a list of what the items were as they were cleaning out 125 filing cabinets. The chemicals are being taken to the U.S. Army laboratory in Edgewood, Maryland, the inspectors said.

The materials were taken in 1996 by inspectors from a former Iraqi chemical weapons plant at Al Muthanna, Marie Okabe, a U.N. spokeswoman said. Okabe, who announced the news at her regular U.N. briefing. said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been informed and "there will be an investigation although I can't tell you right now who will be in charge of that."

The inspectors, who have ended their operation in Iraq, were cleaning out their offices. They discovered two small plastic packages with metal and glass containers, ranging in size from small vials to tubes the length of a pen with liquid substances, the inspectors' spokesman, Ewen Buchanan, said. 'NO IMMEDIATE RISK'

Experts sealed the packages and then isolated them in a secured room. They also tested the area "and found no concentration of toxic vapors in the air," Buchanan said. The experts, from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Unit, known as UNMOVIC, believe "the packages are properly secured and pose no immediate risk or danger to the immediate public," Buchanan said. But Svetlana Utkina, a Russian expert with UNMOVIC, said that if the container, the size of a Coca-Cola can, had evaporated it could have been lethal and "a couple of people will be dead."

The inspectors were sifting through 125 five-drawer cabinets, containing 16 years of inspection reports, much of it sensitive material, said Brian Mullady, an UNMOVIC expert. "And we have artifacts in Baghdad still, these are the actual remnants of the weapons" including pieces of a Scud missile that was taken a decade ago by the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), which dismantled Iraq's weapons of destruction, he said.

UNSCOM was replaced in 1997 by UNMOVIC, which was not allowed back into Iraq until late 2002 and then told to withdraw shortly before the U.S.-led invasion. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, "I'm sure that there are going to be a lot of red-faced people over at the U.N. trying to just figure out how they got there."

Mullady agreed. "It should never have been here in the first place, so we'd like it to be that way when the FBI takes it away," he said.

"We made a determination based on what it was ... that it was safe for us to come back to work, so we're working in the premises," he said.

"We feel perfectly safe," he said.

Dangerous Iraq chemicals found stored at U.N. - Yahoo! News