Skip to comments.Radioactive rockets 'for sale' in breakaway Soviet republic
Posted on 05/07/2005 8:19:13 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
THE arms dealers instructions on the telephone were curt and concise. The meeting would take place at noon, he said, on a bridge in the breakaway east European republic of Transdniester.
Come alone and dont wear any eavesdropping equipment. We are serious people, he added before hanging up.
At the appointed time a Sunday Times reporter posing as a middleman for an Islamic terrorist group stood at one end of the bridge near an army checkpoint, waiting nervously as a colleague watched from afar.
The dealer, who had introduced himself on the phone simply as Dimitri, had chosen the rendezvous well. From the broad banks of the Dniester river, a dark expanse of mud-coloured water lined by dilapidated Soviet-era apartment blocks, he could see a person on the bridge from hundreds of yards away without being spotted himself.
After half an hour the reporters mobile rang. The display showed no number, only the word private. Cross to the other lane. I am coming, Dimitri said.
Seconds later a black BMW with tinted windows drove on to the bridge and pulled up by the side of the road. The passenger door was flung open and Dimitri, in his mid-thirties with receding dark hair and a black leather jacket, beckoned the reporter inside, ordering him to unbutton his jacket to show that he was not wired up.
Dimitri spoke fluent English with an American accent. He was tough and businesslike. The Alazan rocket will cost $200,000 (£105,000), he said. The price is not negotiable. Its a very special thing.
The Alazan he offered, a slender rocket 4ft 7in long with a range of eight miles and a radioactive warhead, is considered by defence specialists to be an ideal weapon for terrorists.
In communist times, standard Alazans were fired at clouds in experiments to make hail fall from the sky away from crops that might otherwise be damaged. But in 2003 it emerged that at least 38 Alazans were fitted with warheads containing up to 400g of caesium-137 and strontium-90, apparently to help scientists track the clouds.
Specialists said that if they fell into terrorist hands and were fired into a city centre, they would spread contamination for miles, causing widespread panic and economic disruption that would cost many millions of pounds.
The rockets are believed to be part of a huge stockpile of ageing, unwanted weapons guarded by Russian soldiers in Transdniester, a 129-mile-long sliver of land on Moldovas border with Ukraine.
Thirteen years ago Transdniester broke away from Moldova after a brief war in which 1,500 people died. The authoritarian regime of President Igor Smirnov who is said to have achieved the improbable feat of gaining 103% of the votes in some areas in elections four years ago has yet to be recognised by any other country in the world. It has been accused of arbitrary arrests and torture, and of presiding over a thriving illegal trade in weapons.
It was while investigating this trade that The Sunday Times learnt of a senior officer of Transdniesters KGB known as the MGB who had confided to a UN consultant that some radioactive rockets could be for sale at the right price. The reporter approached the MGB officer two months ago, pretending to represent a militant Islamic group from Algeria.
The officer confirmed that the rockets were being held at the sprawling former Soviet arms dump of Kolbasna. The dump contains an estimated 50,000 tons of weapons, including artillery shells, mines and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, making it the biggest such stockpile in Europe.
It was left behind when the Russian army withdrew from the former Soviet republics at the end of the cold war.
The weapons, including the Alazans, have been slowly deteriorating ever since. A Russian military report in the 1990s said they were leaking radiation.
The MGB officer contacted by The Sunday Times put the reporter in touch with Dimitri, who telephoned him from an untraceable number to arrange the rendezvous.
Entering the enclave is like stepping into a black and white film. At its unrecognised border with Moldova, guards in shabby black uniforms require visitors to pay the equivalent of 26p. They are greeted by statues of Lenin and banners with patriotic slogans such as: The Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic: the Peoples Pride.
During recent Independence Day celebrations, soldiers from the 5,000-strong army goose-stepped down the main avenue of the drab capital, Tiraspol. They were watched by uniformed children singing: Our army is the best army.
The first brief meeting with Dimitri took place on the bridge in Bender, a small, rundown town of crumbling tower blocks whose poverty is reflected in the prevalence of ageing Soviet-model cars on the potholed roads. The average income in Transdniester is £55 a month, forcing many young people among the 600,000 mainly Russian-speaking inhabitants to seek work elsewhere or rely on the black market.
The meeting with Dimitri ended with a request to check into the Dedeman Grand, the most expensive hotel in the nearby Moldovan capital of Chisinau, six days later and await his instructions.
Four hours after checking into the hotel, the reporter received another call from Dimitri. His flight had been delayed and Dimitri was unhappy about his late arrival. He told the reporter to return the following month, but he set out how the deal would proceed from that point onwards.
You will be delivered a secure mobile on which we can talk freely, Dimitri said. I will give you the number of a bank account in Cyprus. The buyers are to pay 1% of the total price $2,000 into the account.
The rocket would be made available for inspection, he explained. Once we have checked that the money has been transferred, I will call you again to set up another meeting to view the Alazan.
Dimitri told him he could bring an expert to check it with a Geiger counter, but only one person will be allowed to see the rocket.
Asked about the material inside the warhead, he said it contained caesium and strontium. It was agreed that the inspection would take place on May 2 in Ribnitsa, a small town in northern Transdniester.
Then you will make a payment of $8,000 to a company in Ukraine which will arrange for documents to provide a cover to move the Alazan across the border into Ukraine, Dimitri said. The paperwork will show that its a cargo of machine parts.
The reporter and his expert should return to Chisinau this weekend, Dimitri explained. It would be easier to move the Alazan at this time because security would be lax during a national holiday tomorrow to mark the 60th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis.
The rocket would be transferred to an airfield in Ivano-Frankovsk, in southwestern Ukraine. The expert who had verified its radioactive content would accompany it across the border and would hand over $90,000 in unsigned travellers cheques.
The remaining $100,000 would be paid when the reporter took possession of the rocket. You will be waiting at the airfield in Ukraine with the rest of the money, also in travellers cheques, Dimitri said. Once the money has been handed over, it will be up to you to arrange for the rocket to be flown to wherever you want.
As agreed, the reporter returned to Chisinau last Sunday. In the evening there was a knock on the door of his hotel room. Dimitri, wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and dressed in a black suit and blue shirt, had entered the hotel from its underground car park rather than the lobby, perhaps to avoid the possibility of detection.
Looking slightly nervous, he searched the reporter for hidden microphones before sitting on the bed. My people want to sell three Alazans, for a total sum of $500,000, he said.
The terms of the deal have changed. I will be in touch later to give you a bank account number. You must now transfer $5,000 to see the rockets and then we will proceed as agreed earlier. On May 9 we will move the rockets across the border.
He added that a bank transfer to cover the cost of the forged documents for the cargo would have to be made from inside Transdniester using his satellite telephone. You have 24 hours to talk to your people about the new terms, he said.
Following this meeting the reporter was followed on the streets of Chisinau by a man believed to be working for Dimitri. The man at one point sat two tables away from him at an outdoor cafe for more than an hour.
The Sunday Times withdrew that night because taking the investigation any further would have required making a substantial payment to an arms smuggler who had no compunction about dealing with terrorists.
However, Dimitris willingness to let the rockets be tested with a Geiger counter strongly indicated that he had access to them and believed they could be moved at short notice. The offer to sell the Alazans appears to confirm fears in the West that deadly weapons could be acquired by terrorists in Transdniester with relative ease.
In 1999 a truck halted by Moldovan police as it emerged from Transdniester was found to contain shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, plastic explosives and detonators. The driver was from the Transdniestrian army. He was accompanied by a deputy commander of Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in the enclave.
Transdniester is making most of its money from smuggling arms, said a former Moldovan military official. Its a black hole no real laws, no controls and a lot of weapons, the perfect place to buy arms illegally.
Andy Oppenheimer, a consultant on radiological and nuclear weapons to Janes Information Group, calculated that 50g of caesium could drift for more than 20 miles across a target such as London. The clearing up process would be very difficult, he said. It would be a huge operation. Terrorists would create fear and panic if they used such a weapon.
His concerns were echoed by Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist and weapons specialist. Its a nightmare scenario, he said. Only a few grams of this kind of radioactive material could shut down a vast city area.
Under the procedures for dealing with such disasters, the area around the blast would be sealed off while the emergency services dealt with casualties and assessed the level of radiation. Within 45 minutes, 20 mass decontamination tents would be set up by the fire service, processing 200 people per hour per tent, said a London Fire Brigade spokesman.
Cobra, the Cabinet Office committee that deals with terrorist incidents, would be convened under Whitehall and the prime minister would be expected to broadcast an appeal for calm. Military, security and nuclear specialists would join the Civil Contingencies Reaction Force to cope with the aftermath on the ground.
Those in the path of the radiation would be warned to stay indoors and listen to broadcasts. A mass evacuation would begin once the likely spread of the radiation had been assessed, taking into account wind speed, rainfall and other factors.
The clean-up could take weeks or months. Measures could range from hosing down some buildings to destroying others and resurfacing roads.
The Sunday Times investigation will strengthen demands for Transdniesters authorities to curb arms trafficking. There is clearly a problem with weapons that originate from Transdniester, said Adrian Wilkinson, head of a United Nations body that monitors the region.
Peter Kilfoyle, a Labour MP and former defence minister, said he had long been concerned about the stockpiles of weaponry in the former Soviet republics. It is up to the Russians to do something, he said.
Patrick Mercer, a Tory MP and specialist in homeland security, said: It clearly demonstrates why Russian and British intelligence links have got to receive priority.
Moldovan officials who have seen documents relating to the 38 radioactive Alazans thought to be in Transdniester believe three of them are controlled by the local army and the rest by Russian troops. It is very disturbing that unscrupulous people are willing to sell a radioactive Alazan to the highest bidder, said a Moldovan expert. Effectively this is a flying dirty bomb. Its high time the world realised that we have an open arms bazaar in the middle of Europe which needs to be shut down.
"Peter Kilfoyle, a Labour MP and former defence minister........It is up to the Russians to do something, he said.'
Paint, it is blistered, yes. But for you, I am to be giving you mine best price!
Transdniester -- a narrow stretch of land situated along the Dniester River between Moldova proper and Ukraine -- broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears the Soviet republic would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. In 1992, Moldova and Transdniester fought a short war that ended with a Russia-mediated settlement enforced by Russian troops already stationed in the region. No country has recognized the self-proclaimed Transdniester Republic.
The Russian arsenal in Transdniester belongs to the former 14th Soviet Army -- later the Russian Army -- which has been deployed in the region for decades. The 14th Army -- which several years ago changed its name to the Transdniester Operative Group of Russian Troops -- still has some 2,500 soldiers in the region, which Moscow says are necessary to guard the weapons and ammunition depots.
Under growing international pressure, Russia at a 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul signed the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, under which it pledged to withdraw all its troops and military equipment -- estimated at 50,000 weapons and more than 40,000 tons of ammunition -- from Transdniester by 2002. Much of the armaments, as well as the ammunition, were produced before World War II. About 2,500 Russian troops remain stationed in Transdniester as of late 2003.
I suspect these may be the same missiles. Maybe someone would be so kind as to inform our security services to get off their asks.
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