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Reports tie chemical weapons, al-Qaida

The United States has identified sites in Afghanistan that are suspected of involvement in Osama bin Laden's efforts to acquire and produce chemical and biological weapons, but none have been bombed since the military campaign began, the New York Times reports.

According to the newspaper, American intelligence officials think al-Qaida may already have produced small quantities of cyanide gas at a crude research lab in Darunta, near the eastern city of Jalalabad. Cyanide gas can be used to kill small numbers of people, but is not easily deployed on a large scale, officials say.

Intelligence reports indicating cyanide gas production bolster the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that al-Qaida is eager to obtain weapons of mass destruction, but so far has developed only rudimentary capabilities, the New York Times reported.

In addition to the Darunta site, American intelligence and military officials say a fertilizer plant in Mazar-e-Sharif had been under the control of the Taliban and al-Qaida, according to the newspaper. Intelligence analysts suspect that al-Qaida became interested in the plant because its equipment can produce biological or chemical weapons.

An anthrax-vaccine site in Kabul has also raised concerns. The International Committee of the Red Cross had been believed to be operating the plant. But while Red Cross officials acknowledge that it provided funds for the plant, American intelligence officials say it is being operated by the Taliban's Ministry of Agriculture.

The New York Times reported that a senior State Department official said American experts had concluded it would be difficult for al-Qaida to use the plant to produce anthrax weapons.

Senior officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA refused to say why the suspect sites have not been bombed. But the decision appeared to result from a deep sense of caution about the quality of the intelligence about the sites. The official U.S. intelligence assessment is that al-Qaida has a crude chemical _ and possibly biological _ capability, according to the newspaper. Besides cyanide gas, the terrorist group may also have experimented with other crude poisons such as chlorine and phosgene.

The newspaper cited U.S. officials as saying reports of possible cyanide gas production at the Darunta site have been received for at least a year, but there is no definitive evidence that al-Qaida has actually produced the gas.