Enriched uranium sting announced

Source: The Messenger, Rustavi2, 2007-01-26

The Associated Press and The New York Times reported on 25 January that Georgian law enforcement in cooperation with the CIA conducted a sting operation to arrest Oleg Khinsagov, a Russian citizen from North Ossetia, as well as three Georgians, for smuggling highly enriched uranium into Georgia in summer 2006.

According to statement of Shota Utiashvili, who heads the ministry's information and analytical department, Oleg Khintsagov, of Russia's North Ossetia region, was arrested on Feb. 1, 2006 and a closed court convicted him soon after to 8 1/2 years in prison. "He was demanding $1 million for 100 grams [3.5 ounces] of enriched weapons-grade uranium," Utiashvili said.

Khintsagov was detained as he tried to sell uranium-235 to an undercover Georgian agent posing as a radical Islamist group member.

Khintsagov transported the uranium, which was enriched to 90 percent, in plastic bags in his pockets. He refused to cooperate with the investigation. The uranium's origin was unclear. 

A secret trial for Khinsagov and the three Georgians was held last summer. Khinsagov was sentenced to eight to ten years in prison, the Georgian citizens were sentenced to between four and six years.

Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili announced that the operation took place in early 2006, but Russia refused attempts from Georgian officials to find out the origin of the uranium. According to Merabishvili, Russian experts took the sample of the uranium but refused to publicly investigate.

The Georgian side turned to Washington, after which the International Atomic Energy Agency studied the uranium.

"The uranium was studied and it was confirmed that the uranium is in fact enriched," said Melissa Fleming of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

The New York Times reported on 25 January that the Khinsagov was carrying 100 grams of refined uranium in two plastic bags in his coat pocket, uranium which could have helped fuel an atomic bomb. They report that Khinsagov thought he was meeting a buyer that would pay him USD 1 million for the substance and later sell it to a "serious organization". He, in fact, met an undercover Georgian agent. The New York Times article also reports that the amount was only a sample, just under four ounces, and that Khinsagov claimed he could provide up to two to three kilograms of the substance that he had stashed in his apartment in Vladikavkaz.

"We deliberately did not release any information, as the investigation was trying to identify other suspects involved in the case. Moreover, we wanted to determine where the uranium was stolen from," Utiashvili said on 25 January in RIA Novosti.

Interior Minister Merabishvili stated the uranium was enriched by more than 90 percent. This kind of uranium is usually used for constructing nuclear weapons.

"This latest uranium seizure highlights how smuggling and problems with border control associated with Georgia's separatist conflict zones pose a threat not just to Georgia but to the entire international community," John F. Tefft, United States Ambassador to Georgia, told The New York Times.

On January 26, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna is expected to make an official announcement with details about the case.