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Representatives of more than 140 countries, including the United...

By ELIZABETH RICCI

PARIS -- Representatives of more than 140 countries, including the United States, began arriving Thursday for a conference to bolster the 1925 Geneva protocol banning chemical warfare amid tension over U.S. claims Libya is building a chemical weapons plant.

The five-day conference brings together roughly 75 foreign ministers and other top officials from 140 nations, including Secretary of State George Shultz, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and their counterparts from most major European, Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

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Shultz arrived at Orly Airport shortly before 9 p.m. and departed immediately for his hotel.

President Francois Mitterrand plans to open The Conference of Parties to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and Other Interested States Saturday at the headquarters of UNESCO.

The conference comes amid U.S. claims that Libya has built a chemical weapons production plant, possibly with help from West German or other European companies.

West German officials said Thursday they would not press charges against Imhausen-Chemie, one of the firms accused of helping build the plant. Willi Voegele, who headed a four-day investigation, said he found 'no evidence' implicating the company based in the southwestern city of Lahr.

The United States, meanwhile, has denied its claims about the Libyan plant had anything to do with shooting down of two Libyan MiG-23 fighter jets Wednesday above the Mediterranean Sea, an act it called 'self-defense.'

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Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, to be represented by his nation's foreign minister at the conference, has maintained the heavily fortified plant in Rabta, 35 miles southwest of Tripoli, will produce medicine.

The Paris conference aims to reaffirm the 1925 Geneva chemical warfare protocol and accelerate ongoing negotiations in Geneva, without tackling complex issues that need to be resolved for an outright ban on the weapons.

The protocol, now signed by 113 nations, prohibits the use of chemical weapons but not their manufacture.

Shultz, scheduled to address the conference on opening day, was expected to suggest additional U.N. authority to investigate allegations of chemical weapon use worldwide.

The White House is increasingly concerned some Middle Eastern nations, including Libya, Israel, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Egypt, appear to be producing chemical weapons.

The French hope conference participants will work together toward a consensus and refrain from making accusations.

'This is not a tribunal,' French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said at a pre-conference briefing Wednesday. He said he hoped the U.S.-Libyan military clash would not interfere with the conference, but added the U.S.-Libyan conflict highlighted the need for the gathering.

A complete treaty banning chemical weapons has been discussed at the 40-nation Geneva disarmament conference for 20 years with substantive talks the past 11 years.

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But negotiators face difficulties over how to verify adherence to any treaty, especially regarding highly sophisticated binary weapons consisting of two chemicals that are safe apart but toxic when combined.

Conference participants were expected to issue a declaration condemning chemical warfare, asking all nations to respect the 1925 protocol, urging acceleration toward a treaty in Geneva and perhaps suggesting ways to increase U.N. investigative powers.

European nations established the 1925 Geneva protocol after observing the horrifying effects of poisonous gas used by the Germans during World War I. The French, who were among its first victims, keep the original text of the protocol first signed by 38 countries at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

There were no reports of chemical weapon use during World War II, but its development continued in laboratories.

Relatively inexpensive but destructive, chemical weapons sometimes are called nuclear power for the poor. The issue resurged during the Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, both scheduled to participate in the conference.

Iraq has been accused of widespread use of chemical warfare against ethnic Kurds.

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