Lebed stokes up fears over Russia's suitcase A-bombs

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When Alexander Lebed first claimed the Soviet Union had manufactured suitcase-sized nuclear bombs, his remarks were dismissed as nonsense. Yesterday, as Phil Reeves reports, he supplied fuel to a controversy that will not go away.

The former head of Russia's Security Council, Alexander Lebed, has added new flesh to his claim that the Soviet Union manufactured suitcase- sized nuclear bombs, by publicly announcing their name, weight and specific purpose.

Undeterred by Moscow's denials that such bombs ever existed, the former paratrooper general said they comprise a land-based weapon called RA-115 and an underwater variant, the RA-115-01. They weigh 30kg, he said, and were "very compact" weapons designed to destroy warehouses and control points.

Although he did not specifically repeat his view that some of Russia's stockpile of the bombs are unaccounted for, his remarks are likely to anger the government, which has pooh-poohed the allegations. Igor Valynkin, whose department in the Defence Ministry oversees nuclear security, said in September that "nuclear suitcases have never been produced and are not now being produced," although he admitted the existence of nuclear mines. Moscow's disclaimers have been echoed by Western diplomats. But Mr Lebed's allegations have been taken more seriously in military and diplomatic circles. It is known the Soviet Union and US developed small tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Alexei Yablokov, a former Yeltsin adviser, said portable nuclear bombs were made in the 1970s for terrorist purposes. Last month he told a US congressional committee he was "absolutely certain" they existed and had met someone involved in their construction.

This month reports circulated that he was summoned to the Kremlin to draw up a presidential decree on bringing "compact nuclear weapons" under secure control and arranging for their destruction.

Others outside Russia also appear to be convinced: when asked by The Independent about the bombs several weeks ago, a Western military source said: "We know about them."

Mr Lebed, speaking at a press conference promoting his latest book, said none of the alleged weapons had been authorised for use by the government.

"Now we can be pretty sure that they won't be, they have turned from ammunition of national importance into a potentially perfect weapon for nuclear terrorism and nuclear blackmail."