The United States and Uzbekistan have quietly negotiated and are expected to sign a bilateral agreement today to provide American aid in dismantling and decontaminating one of the former Soviet Union's largest chemical weapons testing facilities, according to Defense Department and Uzbek officials.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon informed Congress that it intends to spend up to $6 million under its Cooperative Threat Reduction program to demilitarize the so-called Chemical Research Institute, in Nukus, Uzbekistan. Soviet defectors and American officials say the Nukus plant was the major research and testing site for a new class of secret, highly lethal chemical weapons called "Novichok," which in Russian means "new guy."
The agreement to help Uzbekistan clean up the plant is part of wide-ranging cooperation between Tashkent and Washington since the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan became independent in 1991. Yesterday, American and Uzbek officials opened a series of meetings in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.
Uzbek officials said in interviews earlier this year that, only after their country became independent, did they come to understand the legacy of pollution that had resulted from their designated role as the Soviet Union's major testing ground for chemical and biological weapons. "We were shocked when we first learned the real picture," said Isan M. Mustafoev, the Deputy Foreign Minister, in an interview in Tashkent last March.
Alarmed by the health and environmental impact of the Soviets' use of Uzbekistan for the production and large-scale testing of illegal chemical and germ weapons, President Islam A. Karimov renounced weapons of mass destruction. Since then, his Government has worked closely with American defense officials, granting them access to sites whose counterparts in Russia are still off limits.
The Chemical Research Institute, which is in a closed military complex in Nukus in the semi-autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, is a case in point. Uzbek officials said they were still uncertain what kind of chemical agents, or how many, were made and tested here and elsewhere on Uzbek soil.
Russia has refused to disclose the information, Uzbek officials complain, and some international arms inspectors have said there is no proof that the Nukus plant was used to produce chemical weapons, now banned.
After touring the plant last year, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based agency that oversees the 1993 treaty banning chemical weapons, concluded that the institute may have tested weapons but was not a production site.
Mr. Mustafoev, the Deputy Foreign Minister, scoffed at the finding, arguing there is plenty of evidence of such work at the lab that the Soviets built in 1986, closed to all but the Russian scientists who worked there, and abandoned only in 1992. American officials agreed, noting that a senior defector from the Soviet chemical weapons program, Vil S. Mirzayanov, who worked for more than 25 years in the Soviet chemical weapons program, has told them and later said publicly that the plant was built to produce batches, for testing, of Novichok binary weapons designed to escape detection by international inspectors.
Col. Islamov Abushair, the commander of the Uzbek military base in Nukus, highlighted what he called evidence of the secret Soviet chemical weapons program as he escorted this reporter recently on a rare tour of the plant, now closed. As the Soviet Union was crumbling, he explained, the more than 300 scientists at the plant packed up their deadly chemicals, their most sensitive equipment, manuals, and their test results and returned to their country.
Shards of brown glass laboratory bottles littered the plant's floors and the icy air of an early spring rushed through broken windows. In one room stood a large test chamber into which smaller animals were placed for testing.
Another room contained treadmills for dogs and dozens of testing harnesses, to cram dogs' muzzles into gas masks, leaving their bodies exposed. The device enabled scientists to expose either the dog's skin, or lungs, to lethal chemical agents, Uzbek and American experts said.
"This is the monstrous rubbish they left us," said Colonel Islamov, whose battalion of Uzbek soldiers now occupies the apartments in which elite Russian scientists and their families used to live.
Colonel Islamov and other Uzbek officials said their country lacked the money to decontaminate and convert the plant and stop the pollution caused by accidents, poor safety procedures and the disposal and dumping of chemical wastes and discarded weapons. A Pentagon official said yesterday that the United States would help Uzbekistan dismantle and decontaminate the complex "to prohibit the proliferation of equipment from this pilot-scale production facility."
Information is slowly emerging about hundreds of open-air chemical tests at the Nukus plant and on the neighboring Ustyurt Plateau in the Turgay steppe, an equally inhospitable desert several hundred miles west of the Aral sea, which Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan share.
Uzbek and American bio-warfare experts said that in 1988 thousands of antelope dropped dead on the plateau when the wind unexpectedly shifted during one of the chemical tests. Their carcasses are still buried in a pit on the range, they said.
The Soviet-run animal research institute in Tashkent, the capital, once produced snake and spider venom weapons for the K.G.B.'s assassination program, scientists said.
Abdusattor Abdukarimov, director of the Institute of Genetics and Plant Experimental Biology in Tashkent, now a civilian plant, said that in Soviet times it produced wheat pathogens and other microbes to attack plants.