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IAEA Sends Team to Help Find Missing Nuclear Material in Nigeria - 2003-03-01

Nigeria has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate the disappearance of radioactive material in the country. The IAEA sent an emergency team to the West African nation but says it does not know what happened to the missing material.

The U.N.'s nuclear monitoring agency said Friday it was asked by the Nigerian government to help locate two missing radioactive sources that were being used for legitimate industrial purposes in the country's oil sector.

The agency has not described how much radioactive material was reported missing. But underscoring the potential urgency of the situation, the IAEA's emergency response center dispatched what it calls a team to assist with a potential nuclear accident or radiological emergency.

But twelve days after the team arrived, the IAEA says no one has been able to locate the missing material and a spokeswoman for the agency calls the situation a matter of concern.

On Tuesday, the head of Nigeria's nuclear regulatory body said the radioactive material might have been stolen by someone who wants to take it out of the country.

There have been concerns for some time within the U.S. government about radioactive material in Africa falling into the wrong hands.

In a series of reports last year, the Voice of America disclosed, and the IAEA confirmed, that the agency has known two nuclear fuel rods have been missing from a research reactor in Congo-Kinshasa since the mid-1970s. One fuel rod was recovered by Italian authorities in 1998.

And, U.S. officials have warned that al-Qaida for one, is seeking to acquire a nuclear device. U.S. officials say they have uncovered what they believe is an al-Qaida terrorist connection in West Africa including an arms smuggling network which they consider a threat to regional stability as well as American interests. But on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to suggest the terrorist threat in Africa is no higher than anywhere else in the world.

"There are certainly terrorists on every continent and there's no question but that there are terrorists in Africa," he said. "I wouldn't say it's the next area of activity. I mean we have activity there now. This is a global problem."

Even so, the Pentagon has been working with a number of West African governments to improve border security, especially in countries where it would be easy for terrorists to slip by unnoticed.