Nuclear stings now German poll issue

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BONN - Nuclear smuggling yesterday moved on to the agenda of the German election campaign, with accusations being traded between Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their challengers, the Social Democrats (SPD), writes Steve Crawshaw.

Gunter Verheugen, SPD party manager, claimed the latest plutonium find - when a sting operation led to more than 300g being seized at Munich airport - 'smells of a staged production'. Bernd Schmidbauer, Mr Kohl's intelligence co-ordinator, who flew to Moscow last weekend for talks, flatly rejected the accusation, saying this was 'pure polemic'.

Ever since the plutonium was first seized, many Germans have asked: how come all the nuclear finds of recent months have been in Germany? In the absence of any obvious buyers, the suggestion was that were it not for the German sting operations there would be no trade. There appear to have been many sellers, and few takers - except for Bonn's undercover agents.

Initially, the SPD did not take this line. Instead, it said it had emphasised the urgency of the problem, much earlier, and accused the government of failing to act more quickly. But now the SPD appears to have changed tack. Mr Verheugen suggested yesterday that it was 'absurd' to think that Third World states would choose Germany as their route for bringing nuclear materials out of the former Soviet Union.

The German government claims the only reason that plutonium has been seized only in Germany is because others have not been looking. Officials in Bonn claim the sting operations have successfully drawn international attention to the risks - perhaps, before it is too late.