US seeks to buy Pretoria's uranium stock: Concern over attitude of ANC

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The Independent Online
THE United States is quietly pressing for a deal to buy up South Africa's stocks of weapons-grade enriched uranium - apparently enough to build at least a dozen nuclear bombs - before the possible replacement of white minority rule in Pretoria by a transitional government dominated by the African National Congress.

Informal discussions have been under way for several months now, both here and at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it will almost certainly be a topic during today's scheduled talks in Washington between South Africa's Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, and the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

Although the exact state of negotiations is unclear, some officials here are optimistic that an agreement can be reached soon, despite objections by the ANC and fears in both Washington and Vienna that South Africa may still be concealing the exact quantity of its stockpiled weapons material.

Contacts between the two countries began after Pretoria broke decades of nuclear secrecy and isolationism in July 1991 by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus submitting itself to the controls of the IAEA. The process has been muddied by political developments in South Africa and the arrival of a new administration in Washington, intent on closer ties with the ANC.

According to the Washington Post yesterday, South Africa followed up its official abandonment of nuclear weapons by agreeing to sell the uranium last year. But the paper quoted US officials as saying that the Clinton adminstration had put the matter on hold.

The caution reflects the contrasting pressures on President Bill Clinton. On the one hand, mindful of the political turmoil in South Africa and the ANC's continuing links with Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Washington is desperately anxious to have such potential mischief-making potential safely under lock and key, much as it has sought to eliminate the nuclear capacity of the smaller successor states of the Soviet Union.

On the other, it has been notably warm to the ANC, to the point of giving the movement's leader, Nelson Mandela, much prominence during Mr Clinton's inauguration in January. Indeed, one of Mr Botha's main goals this week will be to impress on his hosts that too obvious a tilt by Washington towards the ANC might only increase instability in South Africa.

But Washington also suspects exactly that risk may be pushing the white minority regime to 'hide' some of its enriched uranium and that, despite South Africa's co-operation with the IAEA, some holdings of both uranium and other nuclear-related equipment may not have been accounted for.

'You can never prove a negative,' the Washington Post quoted one US official as saying. 'You are left at bottom with someone's word for it.'