Uzbekistan, U.S. agree to remove anthrax

Soviet Union dumped tons of deadly spores on remote Aral Sea island

War On Terrorism

The World

October 23, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The United States has signed an agreement with Uzbekistan to remove deadly anthrax from a remote island in the Aral Sea where the Soviet Union dumped tons of lethal spores, Bush administration and Uzbek officials said yesterday.

They said the agreement reflected growing concern that terrorists or rogue states might seek to obtain the anthrax spores, which the Soviet Union secretly buried on the island in 1988.

Separately, administration officials said the Pentagon had approved a project to make a potentially more potent form of anthrax bacteria to see whether the vaccine the United States intends to supply its armed forces with is effective against that strain as well. Russian scientists say they first made the superbug in the early 1990s. In 1997, the scientist say, the genetically engineered germ appeared to defeat its vaccine, at least in hamsters.

The project, run by the Defense Intelligence Agency, was delayed for weeks as Pentagon attorneys debated whether the research violated the 1972 germ treaty banning biological weapons that the United States helped champion.

Officials said yesterday that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved the work last week after attorneys for the Pentagon and other agencies concluded that the project was "fully consistent" with the germ treaty.

Administration officials said both projects, whose details they have declined to discuss publicly, were part of American efforts to deal with the legacy of the Soviet Union's vast germ warfare program. Even after the germ treaty took effect, tens of thousands of Soviet scientists and technicians in secret labs throughout the former empire worked at turning germs into weapons.

The agreements, officials added, also reflect President Bush's determination to bolster the nation's biodefenses. Uzbek and American officials said the agreement between the Pentagon and its Uzbek counterpart to clean up the island, Vozrozhdeniye, or Renaissance, was signed Monday by a Pentagon official in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

Under the accord, the United States will spend up to $6 million dismantling the former Soviet germ-warfare test site, removing the buried anthrax and decontaminating the island. In addition, Washington has pledged to help Tashkent upgrade security at its research institutes and other sites where deadly germs and toxins are stored.

Until the Russian military abandoned the island in 1992, it was the Soviet Union's major open-air biological testing site. Shared by the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the island is the world's largest anthrax burial ground. The Soviets buried the anthrax after a deadly accident at one of their germ plants provoked alarm in the West. The American survey teams found that anthrax spores in soil samples from six of the 11 burial pits were alive and potentially deadly.

Ken Alibek, a defector from the Soviet germ warfare program, said the Soviets had used the island to test germs like tularemia, Q-fever, brucellosis, glanders and plague beginning in the 1970s.

Other studies say Soviet military labs also tested typhus, botulinum toxin, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, smallpox and microbial strains with characteristics useful in warfare, such as high virulence and resistance to ultraviolet rays or heat. Uzbekistan has been a key United States ally both in the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan and in America's attempt to rid the world of biological weapons.

Under the Pentagon's Cooperative Threat Reduction program, Kazakhstan, too, has worked closely with Washington to dismantle its former Soviet biological weapons facilities and prevent potentially lethal germs and weapons expertise from spreading to rogue states and terrorist groups. Both states have renounced weapons of mass destruction.

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