WASHINGTON – U.S. officials released details Wednesday of the intercept last fall of a ship carrying nuclear weapons components bound for Libya, a seizure that came right as the United States and Great Britain were deep in negotiations with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi (search) to give up such weapons.
Al-Qaddafi pledged on December 19 that his government would quit its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and prove its compliance by allowing international inspections of all facilities there.
"Now, we think in Libya (search), in the region, in the Middle East and Africa, it is better for us to dedicate all our capabilities for our development," Libyan foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said on Sunday. "We are ready to be transparent and cooperate fully."
That decision followed a bust two months earlier of al-Qaddafi as he tried secretly to import components for nuclear weapons. The ship with the hidden instruments was interdicted by the United States and United Kingdom. U.S. officials said Wednesday that it was diverted to Italy in October, where authorities found its secret cargo of nuclear weapons equipment.
Some State Department officials say the incident had a "profound effect" on the Libyan leader's willingness to make a deal, but, some analysts say it did nothing for al-Qaddafi's already questionable credibility.
"We should be reserved about giving Libya a clean bill of health until we're absolutely sure that they have not only said they're going to do this but follow, not only with a set of words, but also follow with a set of deeds," said Heritage Foundation (search) senior fellow Peter Brookes.
The revelation of the secret shipment adds weight to the concerns of those who were already cautioning the U.S. government to be wary of al-Qaddafi.
Mohammed Buisier of the American-Libyan Freedom Alliance (search), for instance, is not against the agreement, but wants Washington to use the new leverage to force more reform.
"He's buckling and we have to use that to get the real situation, where Libya is no more a danger to nobody, no more a financer of terrorism, no more putting ticking bombs in airplanes like Pan Am 103 (search)," said Buisier, one of a growing group of Libyan exiles pushing for Democratic reforms in their homeland.
Buisier said that it is not just al-Qaddafi's long history of supporting terrorism abroad, including the bombing of the airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland as it traveled to the United States, but his decades of atrocities at home that should draw U.S. scrutiny. Libyan government television makes no bones about showing victims of al-Qaddafi's rule, people whom Buisier said are not more than peaceful political opponents of the regime.
"People have watched, young kids have watched people, have been hung on the streets killed," he said. "And he's using this to keep people, you know, afraid and scared so they you know can't resist him. How could you believe that this guy can come out and say, 'OK, I'll be Mother Teresa'?"
The State Department maintains it has no illusions about al-Qaddafi and that the sanctions on Libya are not being dropped any time soon.
"As there is follow through, we are willing to discuss with them the issue of improved bilateral relations, but we're not there yet," said State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli.
As further evidence of the U.S. government's intention to keep an eye on al-Qaddafi, the State Department's top nonproliferation official John Bolton was heading to London Thursday to work on getting U.S. and British inspectors into Libya as quickly as possible.
Fox News' Teri Schultz contributed to this report.