Monday, September 26, 2005

Police fear Balkan mafia eager to sell A-bomb materials to Iran

The Sunday Herald:

25 September 2005

From Gabriel Ronay Iran’s quest to become a nuclear power has galvanised the Balkan mafias, security sour ces have warned following the discovery of potentially lethal nuclear enrichment mat erial in the region.

Last week, Bulgarian customs officials prevented a car from crossing into Romania after discovering 3.5kg of hafnium, a metallic element that is used in the nuclear enrichment process and which could potentially be employed in the manufacture of radioactive “dirty bombs”.

According to General Veleri Petrov, the Bulgarian police chief, the hafnium consignment, discovered at the Ruse border crossing point, was destined for a Romanian mafia with Middle Eastern connections. One Bulgarian and three Romanian nationals in the car were arrested.

A Bulgarian police spokes man said the consignment of the rare metal was concealed on the person of the Bulgarian driver of the car.

On its own, hafnium is not radioactive. The consignment was “virtually 100% pure” and suitable for use in nuclear reactors as a control material.

Apart from its use in the nuclear industry, hafnium can also be transformed into a powerful explosive – one gram of hafnium having the potential, after sophisticated and expensive treatment, to emit gamma rays equivalent in power to 50 kilos of TNT. Because of this it is highly sought after by Middle Eastern terrorist armourers. Hafnium is difficult and very expensive to refine. Bulgaria does not possess the technology to produce pure hafnium, the spokesman said, adding that the origin of the consignment was unknown. But, clearly, money is no object for the shadowy end-users .

The Sunday Herald has learned from Romanian sources that an Arab-dominated Bucharest mafia was the inter mediary in the hafnium deal. The sources could not give the intended final destination of the consignment, but the “working hypothesis” of Balkan police forces is that “it is linked to Iran’s nuclear quest”. Then again, there are always al-Qaeda armourers keen to buy dirty bomb material.

Professor Marina Nizamska, head of the Bulgarian Atomic Energy Commission’s special measures department, said hafnium, though not radioactive, is on the UN’s proscribed list of double- purpose materials that have both military and civilian uses. It has special uses in making rockets and bombs, as well as in the manufacture of television tubes.

In a curious twist to the Ruse border crossing arrests, the three Romanian nationals were yesterday released because the Bulgarian driver of the smugglers’ car admitted that the hafnium consignment was his property. He could not, however, say from where it came. Bulgarian police therefore had no legal grounds to hold the three Romanians and they were set free, the police spokesman added.

Because of the concerns raised by the case, the sudden and unconditional freeing of the smuggler’s Romanian companions raises justifiable fears about the financial clout of the mafias apparently involved, and the legendary corruptibility of Balkan police forces. Bulgaria, like Romania, is hoping to join the EU in 2007, but corruption is seen as one of the main stumbling blocks in its path.

The problem is that Bulgaria is at the crossroads of the east-west nuclear smuggling route. Over the past few years, Bulgarian police have foiled at least two attempts to smuggle plutonium and uranium to the Middle East via Bulgaria.

As for Romania, its corruption problem is compounded by the fact that venality is all-pervasive and institutional ised. And organised crime, part of which is controlled by a Syrian-led syndicate, has penetrated the highest echelons of the state. It has MPs, police generals, judges and public prosecutors on its payroll, according to a report by the Bucharest daily Evenimentul Zilei.

Enriched uranium, along with plutonium, is one of the alternative essential component of a nuclear fission weapon or A-bomb. Hafnium is part of the manufacturing process. Iran argues that it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful use in power stations, but the EU and the US fear that Tehran will change the process to make a nuclear bomb.

Only last week Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, said in New York that the EU was trying to bully Iran. “The Europeans have been trying to humiliate the Iranians. Do not doubt that enrichment is a national desire,” he insisted.

Iran’s determination to be a nuclear power defies the EU and the US and threatens to upset the UN’s attempts to control nuclear proliferation. Yesterday the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency approved a resolution that sets Iran up for referral to the U.N. Security Council for violating the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty.


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