Saturday, October 12, 2013

From the Archives: 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Recalls Chemical Weapons in Africa

Yesterday in Oslo it was announced that the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize will go to a group that monitors and discourages the use of chemical weapons in violation of international law.

As Alan Cowell reported in the New York Times,

Urging the destruction of an “entire category” of unconventional weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its 2013 Peace Prize on Friday to a modest and little-known United Nations-backed organization that has drawn sudden attention with a mission to ensure that Syria’s stocks of chemical arms are eradicated.

The award, to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, surprised some Nobel watchers partly because of the unprecedented nature of its current task: overseeing the destruction of a previously secret chemical weapons program quickly amid a raging civil war.
The award brought to mind an article I wrote almost a quarter-century ago about chemical-weapons use by the Soviet Union and its Cuban ally in Africa. Published in the New York City Tribune on July 25, 1989, the piece appeared under the headline, "Nerve Gas Use Poisons U.S. Relationship with Soviets." The headline is somewhat inaccurate, as the article is about calcium cyanide gas, not nerve gas (a distinction brought out in the text).

One sentence stands out as though it could have been written in recent weeks about the situation in Syria:
While 400 or 500 poison gas casualties among tens of thousands of Angolans killed by conventional mean in the past few years seems militarily insignificant, it appears that the Soviets and their Cuban surrogates are using Africa as a laboratory for inhuman experiments.
So far as I know, this article about chemical weapons deployment in Angola in the 1980s has not previously been available on the Internet.

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Is the CIA covering up the use of chemical weapons by Soviet and Cuban forces in Angola? This question was raised recently when strong evidence came to light showing that calcium cyanide, a deadly poison with no known antidote, has been used by Cuban forces against Angolan civilians and supporters of UNITA, the anti-Marxist freedom fighters led by Dr. Jonas Savimbi.

Despite the physical evidence, which has been verified by teams of scientists in Austria, Belgium, Britain, and West Germany, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies refuse to acknowledge that the Soviets have a new chemical weapon nd that they are using it in Angola.

Prof. Aubin Heyndrickx, a distinguished toxicologist from the University of Ghent in Belgium, came to the United States recently to bring his findings regarding these chemical weapons to the attention of American policymakers. He said that U.S. officials are afraid to acknowledge the use of calcium cyanide in Angola for political reasons, because there is a “direct implication of Russia” in the evidence. The United States, he said, “is one of the most difficult countries in the world to accept realism.”

Prof. Heyndrickx describes calcium cyanide as unprecedently effective. It is, he says, faster at producing death than nerve gas. In doses too small to kill, it causes irreversible brain damage, skin burns and abrasions. The surviving victims, he said at a luncheon sponsored by the International Freedom Foundation in Washington, need our humanitarian assistance. They need new clothes, because often all the clothing in their villages has been contaminated by the poison. They need medical care. But most of all, they need recognition by Washington officials of their plight.

The overarching reason for official U.S. skepticism on this issue is the renewal of detente and good relations with Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, and the fear of damaging East-West relations. But the more immediate concern for American diplomats as well as others (from Cuba, Angola, and South Africa) is the success of the Angola-Namibia settlement agreement signed last December. This agreement, the result of eight years of hard negotiations under the leadership of Chester Crocker, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, could be scuttled if news of chemical weapon use by Cuban forces became public.

In fact, Congress has mandated that if the president confirms that the Cubans are using chemical weapons in Angola, then the United States cannot provide money for the United Nations peacekeeping and transition forces in Namibia. The Bush Administration is hesitant to let Congress know – officially – that 400 to 500 Angolans are suffering the acute effects of calcium cyanide poisoning, not to mention the hundreds who have died since 1985, when the weapon was introduced to the Angolan conflict. As a result, despite the need for medical care in Western hospitals, the United States, Belgium, and the United Kingdom have denied entry visas to Angolans in great pain from cyanide gas poisoning. The authorities are afraid the victims' stories, once made public, will threaten fragile diplomatic efforts.

Still another reason why the intelligence community is afraid of this news coming to public attention is misplaced professional pride: the CIA and other agencies are embarrassed for not having discovered this new Soviet weapon. Moreover, because there is no known protective measure against this type of gas, nor any known antidote, its existence would throw NATO planning into a tizzy.

All the gas masks, all the poison gas pills, all the detection devices issued to NATO soldiers – all would be useless in the face of a Soviet calcium cyanide attack on the European front. Coincidentally, it has been demonstrated that in Afghanistan, Soviet troops have been testing new protective clothing and new types of gas masks. A captured gas mask is currently being examined by scientists in West Germany; no results of their investigation have yet been announced.

That is why this situation is worrisome. While 400 or 500 poison gas casualties among tens of thousands of Angolans killed by conventional mean in the past few years seems militarily insignificant, it appears that the Soviets and their Cuban surrogates are using Africa as a laboratory for inhuman experiments.

Like the Nazis and the communists who faced each other down during the Spanish Civil War, using the plains of Spain to test new weapons as a prelude to World War II, the Soviets and Cubans are testing this previously unknown poison on innocent Angolan civilians caught in the crossfire. Captured Angolan army officers have told Western intelligence agents that they themselves are not allowed to handle these weapons; only the Cubans use them under strict Soviet supervision.

Fortunately for the Angolan people, there has been no recorded use of these horrid weapons since April of this year. Still, that use came after the settlement agreement that is bringing an end to the 15-year-old conflict in the region and bringing independence to Namibia. It constitutes a violation of that agreement – not a minor violation, but a major breach of trust by one of the parties (Cuba) against the others (South Africa and the United States).

In light of the Soviets' use of poison gas against their own people in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi a few months ago, this situation should not go unnoticed. The Bush Administration should order a full-scale investigation.

Department of Defense scientists should go to Jamba in Angola, where an unexploded calcium cyanide bomb has been captured by UNITA soldiers and sits ready to be examined. The State Department should hurry along visa applications to allow gas victims to come to the United States for medical care.

President Bush should put pressure on our NATO allies to release the results of scientific studies that are currently being hidden from public view for political reasons, studies that demonstrate conclusively that new Soviet poison gas weapons have been used in Angola. The Soviets and Cubans should be called to account for this violation of human rights and the treaties that banned the use of such weapons more than 60 years ago.

Most of the world applauds the diplomacy that led to the Angola-Namibia settlement late last year. It would be foolish to jeopardize that agreement for trivial reasons. However, that risk is worth taking in order to expose to the world the Soviet Union's use of dangerous, new chemical weapons.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based policy analyst who writes frequently on African affairs.

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