Chemical sale to Mideast probed Ex-Russian general linked to smuggling of poison gas material

October 24, 1995|By Clara Germani and Will Englund | Clara Germani and Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW — Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's editions reporting that former Russian Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich was under investigation for selling chemical weapons to a Middle East country incorrectly stated that he has been barred from running for a seat in Parliament. He is still a candidate and actually might have immunity from prosecution if elected.

MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin's former top chemical weapons disarmament official is under investigation for masterminding the smuggling of chemical weapons components to the Middle East, apparently to Syria.

Anatoly Kuntsevich, a retired army general, helped to smuggle 1,800 pounds of chemical substances, "components of military gasses," to the Middle East country in 1993, said a spokesman yesterday for the Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The FSB also said it was able to prevent a second attempt by General Kuntsevich and his group in early 1994 to smuggle 11,000 pounds of the chemicals to the Middle East.

Experts in the United States said the case represents the first concrete allegations of black-market dealing in Russian chemical weapons.

"This could be evidence of what we've all been afraid of -- the divergence of Russian strategic materials," said Kyle Olson, an analyst with an arms-control consulting firm called TASC, based in Arlington, Va., who has dealt regularly with General Kuntsevich in the past.

Russia reports storing 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, although some believe the total may be much higher.

Critics say security at the storage sites is inadequate, particularly at a time when corruption and bribery have become endemic in Russia.

"The truth is no one really knows the full count of chemical weapons in the Russian inventory, and no one really, truly knows where they're all stashed," Mr. Olson said.

"And Kuntsevich's interest in turning a ruble was not unknown to the world," he said.

Allegations against General Kuntsevich came to light yesterday when he was barred from running for the lower house of Parliament because he is under investigation.

General Kuntsevich, in a telephone interview last night, denied the FSB allegations and said the government was making "an elephant out of a fly."

He said that the substances he is accused of smuggling -- he called them precursors or half-products of pesticides -- are legally on sale in Russia and all over the world. "So what's the use of smuggling them?" he asked.

FSB officials would not specify which Mideastern country was involved in the investigation, but it appears to have been Syria.

A scientist who had worked with General Kuntsevich, Georgi Drozd, was interrogated by the FSB more than a year ago in the case and was told that Syria was the focus of the investigation, a former colleague of his, Vil S. Mirzayanov, said yesterday.

Dr. Mirzayanov himself had fallen afoul of the secret police in 1992, when he blew the whistle on Russia's secret and continuing chemical weapons research; he was tried but released and has since moved to Princeton, N.J.

Dr. Drozd could not be reached for comment, but other sources backed up Dr. Mirzayanov's statement that Syria was the purported purchaser.

Russia and Syria reached an agreement in October 1992 to create what was then called the Syrian Center for Ecological Protection. The Russians sent ordinary chemical equipment to Syria, but the whole enterprise was run by General Kuntsevich -- whose only area of expertise is in chemical warfare.

Analysts in the United States said Syria has long been known to have a small chemical weapons program, which had been sponsored by Moscow before the breakup of the Soviet Union but was presumably cut off in 1992.

"The Syrians are desperate to find anything they can," said Howard Teicher, a former employee of the National Security Council.

The apparent intent of the Syrian program is to maintain a deterrent against Israeli attack, and a threat. Chemical weapons -- sometimes referred to as "the poor man's nukes" -- are cheap to produce and cheap to deliver.

The smuggling probe evidently was the cause of General Kuntsevich's abrupt and mysterious firing in April 1994 for what Mr. Yeltsin only explained as a "gross violation of his duties," but it was only made public by the head of Russia's election commission late last week.

General Kuntsevich is a candidate in the December parliamentary elections. His name, along with 84 other candidates, turned up in an Interior Ministry check of possible criminal records or criminal investigations of the several thousand candidates for the State Duma, said Nikolai Ryabov, ++ the Central Electoral Commission chairman.

General Kuntsevich was a candidate on the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky. Reuters reported that the party removed him from the list Tuesday. But General Kuntsevich says he remains an independent candidate for a single-seat district in Moscow.

He says the charges against him are politically motivated. "Evidently the core of the case is politics -- we're on the eve of elections and its necessary to get rid of an opponent," he said.

However, it is highly unusual for the FSB to announce that a probe is going on. There has also been no explanation as to why the investigation has seemingly languished since the initial interrogations last year.

Military and intelligence analysts were puzzling over the meaning of the sudden leak of the FSB's long-standing investigation. The FSB still operates much as its predecessor the KGB did -- in the intelligence nether world, unhampered by any meaningful judicial or executive review or public scrutiny.

Mr. Englund's reporting on this article was done from Baltimore.

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