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Georgia Authorities Confirm Arrest in Uranium Smuggling Incident

Georgian authorities have disclosed the arrest of a Russian man last year on charges of smuggling contraband uranium. Russian scientists confirmed the radioactive material was weapons-grade uranium but they said the sample is too small to determine its origin.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry in Tbilisi claims the Russian man sought one million dollars for a 100-gram sample of high-grade uranium. The ministry also said he promised larger quantities, enough for a small bomb, if the price was right.

Vano Merabishvili, Georgia's Minister of Internal Affairs, told VOA's Russian service the man sold the sample to an undercover agent. "He brought it into Georgia for the purpose of further distribution to third countries. This man was detained by our special forces. We informed the press and shared all the information we had with our colleagues in Russia and in the United States."

Although the amount was very small, Georgian authorities say the material was enriched to more than 90 percent. John Tefft, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, says it could have been a tragedy in the wrong hands.

"While this was a hundred grams of highly enriched uranium, if you had a larger quantity of this, you know, it could become very, very dangerous for international security,” said the ambassador. “So it is something we take very seriously at the (U.S.) embassy and we work very hard on with the Georgian government, which is also taking it very seriously."

Georgian officials say the incident poses a grave threat to other countries and they requested a joint investigation involving U.S. and Russian authorities. The case renews concerns about security at Russian nuclear sites and aggravated tensions between the two countries.

Russian parliamentary deputy Konstantin Zatulin believes the decision to publicize the incident one year later is a political maneuver aimed at discrediting Moscow while the country is discussing a nuclear deal with India. "I see only one reason to again return to the theme of mysterious Russian spies who are transporting uranium and plutonium and other such substances all over the world."

Georgian officials say the uranium was smuggled in from the Russian border into Georgia. But Russian scientists say the sample was too small to determine its source.