Iranians 'buying ex-Soviet uranium'

Nuclear smuggling: The West fears dangerous material could pass to terrorists as Afghans peddle contraband to highest bidder

Iran is reported to have bought enriched uranium from Russian diplomats based in Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, according to Western diplomatic sources.

The enriched uranium is part of a lethal hoard of strategic nuclear equipment that is being plundered from high security installations in the former Soviet republics and smuggled down to Afghanistan and the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar, as revealed in The Independent on Sunday this weekend.

This enriched uranium - bought secretly by Iran two months ago - was pilfered by underpaid security guards at a nuclear plant in Kazakstan as part of their "bonus". From Central Asia it was transported in lead cylinders to Mazar-e-Sharif. The enriched uranium, used to make atomic bombs, was peddled to the Iranians by Russian diplomats based in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city under the control of an Afghan warlord, General Abdulrashid Dostum.

Mazar-e-Sharif is just a transit point on the nuclear smuggling route. Some Western diplomats are alarmed that the Russians have a huge consulate of 52 staff there. The main destination for nuclear wares is, increasingly, Peshawar. There, nuclear salesmen, usually Afghans, are offering to sell such dangerous contraband as enriched uranium, super-powerful magnets, catalysts, and alloys for making the shells of thermo-nuclear warheads.

This lethal nuclear contraband is coming down the same trans-Asia pipeline used by Afghans to move guns, heroin and looted Buddha statues, some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, through Moscow and into Europe. Few Afghan smugglers now holding this nuclear material are aware of its radioactive effects.

In Washington, the CIA director, John Deutch, expressed concern over the threat of "loose nukes" being smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. He said that since the collapse of the USSR, the Russians' ability to maintain tight control over their nuclear facilities had slackened.

According to the CIA, Iran is secretly building up its own nuclear weapons programme and is a leading buyer of the contraband. In Peshawar, one Westerner in contact with the dealers talks of "Iranian colonels and majors walking around with Samsonite suitcases full of $100 bills, who are shopping for this stuff".

Other keen buyers are Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and possibly Pakistan, all suspected of making nuclear weapons. The other interested shoppers are Western governments who are anxious to stop the former Soviet Unions's pilfered nuclear technology from being grabbed by terrorist groups.

One Western diplomat in the Pakistan capital, Islamabad, remarked: "This material is supposed to be strictly controlled, and if the Russian mafia or somebody else is smuggling this out, then it's very serious. Many of these things being hawked around are radioactive. We're worried about a disaster. Not only is this dangerous to the individuals who are moving it around, but there's also potential for a terrorist group buying up bits and pieces."

The prospect of terrorists acquiring A-bomb equipment in Peshawar is not the far-fetched stuff of spy novels. Islamic extremists from many countries used Peshawar as a base from 1979 onwards during the Afghan jihad, or holy war, against the Soviet forces. Even after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, many Muslim extremists stayed on. Under pressure from foreign governments, the Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, has tried to expel these Islamic revolutionaries but many of them simply vanished across the border into lawless Afghanistan.

"Contrary to what Tom Clancy writes, it's not that easy to dismantle and sell off a nuclear weapon. As far as we know, that isn't available in Peshawar - not yet, anyway," said a military expert at one Islamabad embassy approached by Afghan nuclear salesmen.

Often, antiquities smugglers run a sideline in nuclear merchandise. One Western art expert, who was expecting to see plundered antiquities from Afghanistan, instead was shown a 1,200kg stash of enriched uranium. It was hidden under the floorboards of a house in a residential area of Peshawar. The uranium came in 5kg lead cylinders that resembled "medicine jars". He said: "I got the impression that these smugglers didn't know how to handle the stuff at all."

A strategic steel alloy - used in making atomic submarine hulls as well as nuclear bomb casings - is also now being peddled in Peshawar by a Russian engineer. The Russian claims that the alloy has been brought down through Turkmenistan into Afghanistan along the old smuggling routes. From there it was transported across the mountain pass of Parachinar into Pakistan's tribal territories.

General Naseerullah Babar, the Pakistan interior minister, admitted that his government was approached by smugglers bearing nuclear shopping lists. "A lot of these items are coming out [of the former Soviet Union]. Even this morning, there was someone here offering these things. They bring photographs and things, and we ask experts to look at the material and the Russian writing. But when we ask them to bring it, they don't," he said.

Some diplomats are worried that Afghan traders may have been tricked by nuclear suppliers in the former Soviet republics into purchasing worthless - but highly radioactive - "nuclear rubbish". One Western military expert said: "These Afghans end up irradiating themselves, and then dying six months later. They're crazy."

Often, Western embassies are the target of hoaxers. "They show us a polaroid of some cylinders and they say: 'Give us $5m. We know you want it.' But when we ask for samples, they refuse. For all we know, it could be just radioactive waste scooped off the rubbish heap of some Russian hospital." The diplomat added wearily: "But we have to check it all out. The consequences are too dire."

Western embassies in Islamabad claim that Pakistan is helpless to stop these nuclear traders because their long, mountainous border with Afghanistan cannot be sealed off. One diplomat said, "These Afghans are real entrepreneurs. They want money, and they don't care if somebody like a terrorist dumps this radioactive material into the water supply or makes it into a bomb."

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