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US Confirms Role in Georgian Uranium Seizure

The Bush administration Thursday confirmed a U.S. role in a Georgian anti-smuggling operation last year that involved the interception of highly enriched uranium, apparently of Russian origin. The State Department is urging greater international cooperation to halt trafficking in such dangerous material. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here say the United States provided support to Georgia in its prosecution of a Russian man arrested last year who tried to sell a small amount of highly enriched uranium to undercover Georgian agents running a "sting" operation.

Disclosure of the case by Georgian officials in Tbilisi this week has raised new concerns about the possible availability of weapons-grade nuclear material on the international black market, and about the security of Russian nuclear stockpiles.

According to press accounts, Georgian authorities arrested a Russian man early last year after he tried to sell Georgian agents two plastic bags containing 100 grams of uranium, enriched to 90 percent purity.

The reports said the Russian, from the region of North Ossetia bordering Georgia, had been led to believe that he was dealing with representatives of an unnamed Muslim group, and that he had told Georgian agents he had access to two or three kilograms of the uranium - enough to make a small bomb.

Briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Georgia requested help from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Energy in the prosecution of the case.

He said the seized material was brought to the United States for a scientific analysis which revealed that it was, indeed, highly enriched Uranium 235.

McCormack said the presence of a small amount of such material on the black market raises concern that larger quantities might be available, and that the case underscores the need for increased international cooperation:

"I think it really is incumbent upon all states, if they have information that might pertain to smuggling of these kinds of extremely dangerous materials, that they should offer up that information," said Sean McCormack. "Now, the form and the particular venue in which they do that I think is up to them. But I think, as a bedrock principle, it is important that we do develop the kind of mechanisms and operating principles that encourage the sharing of this kind of information. These are very dangerous materials, which falling into the wrong hands can be put to use that can harm innocent civilian populations."

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, in an interview with VOA, said his government had shared information on the case with both the United States and Russia and proposed a joint investigation.

However, he said there has been no sign of cooperation or an investigation on the part of Russia, which he said which would be as threatened as any other country by the proliferation of such dangerous materials.

Merabishvili, whose government has had difficult relations with Moscow, asserted there is "no shortage" of individuals in Russia who could acquire radioactive materials and blackmail or terrorize the Russian government and people.

Under questioning here, Spokesman McCormack would not comment on Georgian-Russian cooperation in the case. But he said the United States and Russia have recently begun a joint initiative on preventing nuclear smuggling and terrorism and that there has been good Russian cooperation on that.

The case disclosed this week was the second of its kind since 2003 involving highly enriched uranium intercepted by Georgia. The New York Times reported Thursday that the Russian arrested in the latest case was convicted on smuggling charges in a secret trial and given eight and a half years in prison.