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Yugoslavia Sends Weapons Grade Uranium Back to Russia - 2002-08-23

Yugoslavia has returned to Russia enough weapons-grade uranium to make at least two nuclear bombs. Some 6,000 uranium rods were shipped out Thursday in a highly classified U.S. - Russian operation aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Witnesses described the operation as a dramatic military style maneuver complete with helicopters and heavily armed police deployed to protect the 33-kilometer long route from Belgrade's Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences to the airport.

Minister for Technology, Science and Development Dragan Domazet said the heavy police presence, which sealed off half of Belgrade, was aimed at preventing a terrorist attack during the six-hour operation.

The move, which had been planned in secrecy for over a year, took place before dawn on Thursday.

Reports said the shipment was organized to eliminate what weapons experts consider one of the world's most dangerous nuclear stockpiles. The kind of fissionable material at Vinca would be much sought after by governments or terrorist groups intent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

Reports said that although there had been no warnings of any attempt to steal the material, officials were still worried the uranium could be stolen.

The former Soviet Union gave the nuclear material to the Vinca institute in 1976 for research work. But the uranium remained unused after a nuclear reactor at the institute was closed in the 1980s.

Following the ouster of former President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the Serbian government began a program to reduce environmental hazards, including nuclear materials.

The uranium was flown to a plant in central Russia that specializes in converting weapons-grade uranium into the kind used in nuclear power plants.