Western security agencies have cooperated to thwart one of the biggest efforts ever by Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi to supply the Irish Republican Army and possibly other European terrorists. The Foreign Office here says official French reports on the seizure of the Panamanian-registerd Eksund that said its cargo of 150 tons of arms and munitions came from Libya are well-founded.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a letter of warm thanks to French Premier Jacques Chirac. In Parliament here, Mrs. Thatcher commented that the ship's capture Oct. 30 off Brittany had ``probably saved many lives in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.''
Before the closed Paris hearings of the Eksund's captain and four other crewmen - all Irish - began, French prosecutor Michel Beard told newsmen that the shipment, which included 20 SA-7 missiles, was definitely intended for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Irish security sources in Dublin identified three of the crewmen as key members of the IRA, which is illegal in Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Republic.
Security sources in London say the loading of the arms aboard the Eksund Oct. 14 in or near the port of Tripoli, Libya was spotted by neither a US intelligence satellite or CIA agents, as French sources first reported. They said the Eksund had long been under suspicion of carrying drugs as well as arms and had been followed by both British and French security agencies.
Officials here say this was the largest single cargo of Libyan arms ever known to be consigned to the IRA or other non-Arab terrorists.
Libya's ambassador in Paris denied last Thursday that the arms came from Libya. British, Irish, and French officials, however, seem convinced that the cargo was indeed Libyan-supplied.
After the April 1986 US air attacks against Libya, Colonel Qaddafi had promised to take reprisals against Britain for allowing the US to use air bases here for those attacks.
Western intelligence officials were suspicious of the Eksund as early as last summer. She sailed through West Germany's Kiel Canal Aug. 8, with no cargo aboard and listing her port of origin as Kalmar, Sweden and destination as Valetta, Malta. From Aug. 27 to Oct. 12, the ship was in Valetta.
She sailed for Gibraltar Oct. 12. Her captain, Adrian Hopkins, protests his innocence of any purpose, except to deliver the ship to new owners in Gibraltar. Valetta port officials say the ship left Malta empty.
British security interest increased when the ship failed to dock in Gibraltar. One of its crew told French customs that the Eksund had called at Portugal's Atlantic island of Madeira, but Portuguese security authorities found no trace there.
The ship entered French waters, ostensibly bound for Kiel. French customs boarded her Oct. 30. Regional chief Guy Storm said suspicions were aroused because the ship's registry had changed recently and her papers were not in order.
Items in the Eksund's cargo, such as the SA-7 missiles and rocket grenade launchers are in heavy demand by the IRA to shoot down British helicopters operating on the Irish Republic-Northern Ireland border.
Throughout the 1970s, Qaddafi said repeatedly that he would support the IRA cause. In 1973, the Irish Navy seized the Claudia, a ship carrying five tons of arms from Libya, as it tried to land the cargo in Ireland. The Claudia's owner, a convicted West German arms smuggler, said the IRA had given him a shopping list of Libyan-supplied weapons and munitions.
Britain broke relations with Libya in 1984, after a policewoman was killed by shots fired from the Libyan mission in London. A Tripoli broadcast later announced a Libyan ``alliance'' with the IRA for ``liberating the Irish nation from the tyranny of British colonialism.'' IRA bureaus were opened in Libya.
After the US raid from British airfields and US carriers in the Mediterranean in April 1986, Qaddafi repeated threats to increase help to the IRA. Thatcher, explaining her support for the US raids, mentioned Libyan terror plots abroad. She cited discovery in January 1986 of large arms caches in the Irish Republic. Some of the arms crates were labeled ``Libyan Armed Forces.''
Mr. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, is an ABC News staff correspondent based in London, specializing in the Mideast and North Africa.