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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Georgia: $1M uranium sale foiled

TBILISI, Georgia (Reuters) -- Georgian special services have foiled an attempt by a Russian citizen to sell weapons-grade uranium for $1 million in the Georgian capital, a senior Interior Ministry official said on Thursday.

The official said Oleg Khintsagov, a resident of Russia's North Ossetia region, was arrested in early 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 Islamic 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 weapons-grade uranium in Vladikavkaz, Utiashvili said. After his arrest he refused to cooperate with the investigation.

It was unclear where the uranium came from. The safety of Russia's vast stocks of nuclear weapons has concerned world leaders since the fall 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.
Sting operation

Khintsagov discussed selling weapons-grade uranium with three acquaintances, after which security service agents infiltrated the group.

He brought one gram of the uranium to Georgia as a sample and the agents agreed to buy more. He then brought another 100 grams to Tbilisi, at which point he was arrested.

Georgian officials sent samples of the uranium to the United States and Russia for examination.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Russian officials confirmed the uranium was weapons-grade but said they could not identify its origin.

"They (the Russians) said that they could not say where it came from, which surprised us somewhat," Utiashvili said.

A source in Russia's atomic energy agency told Interfax news agency that Russia had been given only a tiny amount of the uranium to analyze. They found it was enriched to more than 90 percent, the source said.

In sufficient quantities, uranium-235, which has a half-life of more than 700 million years, can be used to make a nuclear bomb.

Utiashvili added that a similar case had occurred in 2003, also with weapons-grade uranium, but he said the investigation was still continuing and declined to comment further.
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