Arrest in alleged uranium sale a propaganda ploy, Russia says

WORLD DIGEST

January 27, 2007|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Russian authorities rejected yesterday as an overblown propaganda ploy the announcement this week that one of its citizens was arrested last year in Georgia while allegedly trying to sell a small amount of weapons-grade uranium.

Russian national Oleg Khintsagov was arrested Feb. 1 last year in a sting operation after he smuggled about 3.5 ounces of the uranium into Georgia from his homeland, expecting to receive $1 million for it, Shota Utiashvili, chief of the analytical department of the Georgian Interior Ministry, said yesterday in an interview from Tbilisi, the country's capital.

Khintsagov, who thought he was dealing with "an extremely wealthy customer" wanting to buy nuclear bomb-making material, claimed that he would be able to provide up to 6.6 pounds at the price of $1 million for each 3.5 ounces, Utiashvili said.

Khintsagov was convicted for the attempt sale and current is serving at least eight years in prison.

Some experts claim that as little as 4 pounds of weapons-grade uranium could be sufficient to construct a bomb, but more common estimates are that even a highly sophisticated weapon would need several times that amount. Estimates of how much enriched uranium a terrorist organization would need to make a relatively crude bomb typically range from 35 to 50 pounds.

Utiashvili charged that Russia had not cooperated in investigation of the incident, which was first made public this week by Georgian and U.S. officials. Those officials said the CIA, the FBI and the Energy Department had assisted in the case.

"We think it is extremely dangerous that such material can get into the hands of terrorists," Utiashvili said. "We think it is in everybody's interests, and especially in the interests of Russia, to get to the bottom of it and assist us in this investigation."

Georgian-Russian relations have been strained since last year, and Russian authorities have blamed any lack of cooperation in the case on the Georgian side.

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