BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Colombia's Defense Ministry said Wednesday night that it had recovered uranium that officials have alleged leftist rebels might have acquired to make a "dirty bomb."
In a statement, the ministry said informants last week brought military intelligence officers a chemical sample, which tests found to be "degraded uranium." On Wednesday night, officials were at the site a few miles south of Bogota to recover the source of the sample, a cache weighing up to 66 pounds.
A Western official, however, expressed skepticism about the "dirty bomb" report, saying there is "a bit less than meets the eye here." U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment.
In a news conference late Wednesday, Colombian armed forces commander Gen. Freddy Padilla connected the uranium to Raul Reyes, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia second in command who was killed March 1 in a Colombian bombing raid while he camped in Ecuador.
Padilla cited electronic files in three laptop computers seized after the raid that allegedly mention FARC attempts to purchase uranium. Without presenting any proof, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said at an international forum in Switzerland this month that the uranium described in Reyes' computer was to have been used in a "dirty bomb," which would use conventional explosives to spread radioactivity.
The uranium sample was brought to Colombian authorities by two demobilized former FARC members, a Defense Ministry spokesman said. But he emphasized that information allegedly contained in the rebels' computers did not play a role in finding the uranium.
There has been no independent analysis of the laptops or their contents, and some analysts have cautioned that information described as being taken from them could be part of a government-sponsored disinformation program to discredit Ecuador and Venezuela.
Those allegations were strengthened somewhat when it was revealed this month that a photo from Reyes' laptop leaked to El Tiempo newspaper that alleged to show Reyes with Ecuadorean Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea did not actually picture Larrea.
One laptop is alleged to contain information linking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to a $300-million donation to the FARC. Chavez has denied the allegation.
Colombia has invited Interpol to conduct an independent analysis of the laptop data. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee has asked Colombian National Police commander Oscar Naranjo to brief it on the contents.
Padilla said government scientists would analyze the uranium in an effort to determine where it came from and what its use could be.
Reyes' death in Ecuadorean territory caused the worst diplomatic furor seen in Latin America in years. Ecuador and Venezuela briefly sent troops to their border areas with Colombia.
The crisis was defused after the Organization of American States issued a declaration signed by most of its 34 members criticizing the Colombian raid as a breach of sovereignty.
Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.