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Russian Arms Dealer Suspected in Nuclear Sale - 2002-02-26

U.S. officials say a shadowy Russian arms dealer, now under investigation for his weapons sales in Afghanistan, may be linked to the sale of fake nuclear material to al-Qaida.

U.S. officials have said they do not know for certain if Victor Bout sold Osama bin Laden the crude containers found at al-Qaida facilities in Afghanistan and purported to contain radiological compounds.

But they said it is possible, because the arms dealer had ties to Russian Mafia groups long known for their involvement in scams involving fake weapons-grade nuclear material.

Mr. Bout's name has been found on documents discovered in Afghanistan in recent weeks, in connection with the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

According to intelligence data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, a private, non-partisan U.S.-based watchdog group, Mr. Bout earned an estimated $50 million from arms sales to the Taleban in the late 1990s. The Center says, and U.S. sources concur, that any weapons shipped to the Taleban could have been funneled to al-Qaida.

The documents do not specify the type or amounts of weapons, but do make clear they originated from the stockpiles of the former Soviet Union.

Al-Qaida is known to have sought nuclear materials.

But U.S. officials confirm that no nuclear or radioactive substances have been found at al-Qaida sites. They specifically suggest the terrorists may have been duped by black market swindlers.

The secret arms transfers linked to Mr. Bout are understood to have been carried out using aircraft operating out of Sharjah, part of the United Arab Emirates.

These are the same aircraft linked to years of gun-running to such strife-torn African states as Angola, the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Mr. Bout's present whereabouts are uncertain. United Nations investigators say he was born in Tajikistan in 1967, has several aliases and is known to have at least five passports.