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Uranium seized in sting, officials say

January 25, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Republic of Georgia authorities, aided by the CIA, set up a sting last summer that led to the arrest of a Russian who tried to sell a small amount of bomb-grade uranium in a plastic bag in his jacket pocket, U.S. and Georgian officials said.

The operation, which neither government has publicized, represents one of the most serious cases of smuggling of nuclear material in recent years, according to analysts and officials.

The arrest underscored concerns about the possibility of terrorists acquiring nuclear bomb-making material on the black market, although there was no suggestion that this particular case was terrorism-related.

Details of the investigation, which also involved the FBI and Energy Department, were provided by U.S. officials and Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.

Authorities say they do not know how the man acquired the nuclear material or whether his claims of access to much larger quantities were true. He and three Georgian accomplices are in Georgian custody and not cooperating with investigators.

The man has been sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison on smuggling charges. His accomplices have been sentenced on lesser charges.

Georgian attempts to trace the material and confirm whether the man indeed had access to larger quantities have foundered from a lack of cooperation from Russia.

Russian authorities took a sample of the material but failed to offer any assistance despite requests for help from the Georgians, Merabishvili said.

Merabishvili, who was visiting Washington this week, said the seized material was about 3.5 ounces of uranium enriched to more than 90%. A sophisticated nuclear bomb would require at least 33 pounds.

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