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by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak
While the Reagan administration in its final days threatens to des- troy Libya's new chemical weapons plant, it is turning away from in- creasingly hard but unpublicized evidence that Soviet-sponsored Cuban troops in Marxist Angola are using poison gas againnst U.S.-backed freedom fighters.
An intelligence report this week went to a top Western source from headquarters of Jonas Savimbi's anti-Communist guerrillas charging 120 deaths and 300 cases of paralysis from gas attacks. The origin of the chemical weapons: the Soviet bloc or Cuba. That source jibes with reports months ago by an international expert.
Why this disturbing information has not aroused U.S. officials as did reports of Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi's poison gas plant may be explained by diplomatic Realpolitik. The departing team of Presi- dent Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz counts its cozy new relationship with President Mikhail Gorbachev as one of the administration's most notable foreign policy achievements. That breeds a natural reluctance to charge the Kremlin with aiding gas warfare.
Furthermore, the United States may not wish to stir the pot after last month's long-sought agreement between South Africa and Angola. the pact, calling for staged Cuban withdrawal of its 55,000 troops and an end to South African aid for Savimbi, is viewed as one of the most sparkling jewels in Shultz's peace crown. But poison gas may be used to destroy Savimbi's UNITA guerrillas before the Cuban's leave.
Tough U.S. action against the users and perpetrators of poison gas in Angola is unlikely. Not even an international investigation re- sulting from Shultz's speech at the chemical-war conference in Paris last week can be counted on.
That is true despite new evidence of poison gas in Angola. Samples of war-gas "identification kits" taken from Cuban prisoners after a key Angolan battle at Cuito Cuanavale were of Soviet origin. The charge against Angola and its Soviet-Cuban allies has been scrupulously documented by Dr. Aubin Heyndrickx, a world-renowned Belgian criminal toxologist and professor at the State University of Ghent. In a letter last May replying to questions from Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini about gas-war rumors, Heyndrickx wrote: "There is no doubt anymore that the Cubans were using nerve gases against the troops of Mr. Jonas Savimbi."
U.S. officials have seemed reluctant to accept Heyndrickx's conclu- sions or even to make a thorough investigation of their own. One high official told us privately that Heyndrickx's "reputatiion" is not all that high. In fact, however, he was wholly unaware of the Belgian's background as the senior United Nations consultant on chem- ical warfare.
Heyndrickx's voluminous documentation of his charges warn the United States that if Soviet-Cuban managers in Angola used gas in the past, they could use it in the future. The purpose: defeat Savimbi during the dangerous period before Cuban troop withdrawals.
Other sources have told U.S. officials that Soviet experts were withdrawn from Afghanistan in 1986 and sent to Angopla. Savimbi's supporters are dismayed by the Reagen administration's apparent reluctance to dig into these charges of gas use against a U.S.-backed force with the same vigor of the president's threats against Libya's new chemical plant.
The unpleasant conclusion is a U.S. double standard in the interests of detente. Just as the hard line against terrorism faded when it came to possible KGB complicity in the murder of Pakistan's Presi- dent Zia, so does determination to rout out the use of poison gas if a made-in-the-Kremlin label is spotted.