Georgia says it foiled sale of bomb-grade uranium

By Margarita Antidze
Thursday, January 25, 2007; 11:05 AM

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian special services have foiled an attempt by a Russian citizen to sell weapons-grade uranium for $1 million to agents he thought were radical Islamists, a senior Interior Ministry official said on Thursday.

The official said Oleg Khintsagov, a resident of Russia's North Ossetia region, was arrested on February 1 2006 and a closed court soon after convicted him to 8 1/2 years in prison.

Khintsagov was detained as he tried to sell uranium-235 to an undercover Georgian agent posing as a member of a radical Islamist group, said Shota Utiashvili, who heads the ministry's information and analytical department.

"He was demanding $1 million for 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of enriched weapons-grade uranium," Utiashvili said. "This sort of uranium could be used to make a nuclear bomb but 100 grams is not enough."

Before being arrested, Khintsagov told agents he had another 2-3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz, Utiashvili said.

Khintsagov transported the uranium, which was enriched to 90 percent, in plastic bags in his pockets. He refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The uranium's provenance was unclear. The safety of Russia's vast stocks of nuclear weapons from smugglers has concerned world leaders since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

Russia says its nuclear facilities are well guarded. A spokesman for Russia's atomic energy agency had no immediate comment on the Georgian case.

There have been 16 previous confirmed instances of stolen or missing HEU or plutonium recovered by authorities since 1993, according to a database of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it expected Georgia to notify it of the new case shortly.

"Given the serious consequences of the detonation of an improvised nuclear explosive device, even small numbers of incidents involving HEU or plutonium are of very high concern," said IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.

"Trafficking incidents involving nuclear material point to possible weaknesses and may be indicative of the illicit availability of larger undetected quantities."

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