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Congo Authorities Seize Illegal Uranium - 2004-03-20


Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have seized what they claim are two illegal cases of uranium in the country's capital, Kinshasa. The seizure this month represents a worry to the giant central African country that is emerging from seven years of murderous conflict.

Congo's general atomic-energy officer, Professor Fortunat Lumu, a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed that state security services had seized the cases and handed them over to atomic-energy officers at the Ministry of Scientific Research for confirmation that they were radioactive. Congolese authorities say about 50 cases of uranium and caesium have been seized by Congolese authorities during the past four years. The radioactive cases are believed to be smuggled into the country, and then traded across loose borders to several of Congo's nine neighboring countries.

Authorities suspect the cases are brought into Congo for industrial use in the region's oil and mining sectors, bypassing international conventions on shipping radioactive material. State authority and border controls are often weak or non-existent in the former Zaire, recovering from more than five years of a war that involved several of its neighbors.

Most of the illegal cases seized in the past have been in Kinshasa, although there have been some identical cases found in neighboring Uganda and Tanzania. Oil rich Republic of Congo is thought to be the largest external entrepot for the nuclear material, with only the Congo river separating its capital, Brazzaville, from Kinshasa.

Last week, police in Zambia arrested two men in possession of a suspected bomb-grade uranium cache believed to have come from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congo has been mired in controversy concerning its activities with nuclear material. In 1998 Italian police arrested 13 men as they were about to sell a uranium fuel rod to the Mafia. The rod had been stolen from a nuclear research reactor in Kinshasa.

Last year, the Lyon-based French newspaper Le Progres reported that a former soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo had testified that he had been present when two of his associates sold uranium to an al-Qaida operative.

Testifying at the investigation into the murder of his two colleagues, he said the money obtained from the uranium was needed to finance a coup against the late president, Laurent Kabila.

Congo's government this year declared one of its largest mines, Shinkolobwe, in the south of the country, a protected site. This mine provided the uranium used in the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

Copper and cobalt compounds with traces of stable uranium 238 are still mined here. Experts say much of this material is smuggled across loose borders where it can be sold to countries with technologies capable of turning stable uranium 238 into fissile material.

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