By David Filipov,
New fears Chechens may seek nukes
Suspicious events concern Russians
Moscow - The day after Russian commandos stormed a Moscow theater to free hostages held by Chechen rebels, two events thousands of miles apart suggested that rebel factions might be plotting a far more harrowing scenario.
In Denmark, Akhmed Zakayev, an envoy of Chechnya`s separatist leadership, warned that rogue militants might follow the theater attack with a raid on a Russian nuclear facility. Russia took that seriously enough to issue a warrant for Zakayev`s arrest; he is now being held in Copenhagen pending an extradition hearing.
That same day in Tver, a Russian city 100 miles north of Moscow, security officers arrested a captain of the guards at the Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant. The captain, whose name was not disclosed, was caught with detailed plans of the station and coded telephone numbers that belonged to Chechens, according to Oleg Pribok, the local military prosecutor.
It is unclear whether the two arrests were related, and there is no direct evidence that Chechens have planned assaults on any nuclear facilities. But the two incidents in October drew heightened attention to a question that has been on the minds of policy makers in Russia and abroad: What if the rebels Russia is fighting in Chechnya try to go nuclear?
A series of suspicious incidents, unconfirmed reports, and partial admissions by Russian officials suggest that the rebels have tried to acquire nuclear materials. Nuclear proliferation specialists outside Russia say that the evidence is clear that Chechens have had access to radioactive materials in their capital, Grozny. On at least one occasion, the rebels, or someone else, tried to wire radioactive materials with conventional explosives in an attempt to assemble a "dirty bomb," according to Lyudmila Zaitseva of Stanford University`s Institute of International Studies, which runs a database on the theft and smuggling of radioactive materials.
And at least one former adviser to the US government says that the rebels have acquired warheads from the nuclear arsenal the Soviets possessed.
John Colarusso, a specialist on the Caucasus region at McMaster University in Ontario, said, "I am reasonably certain that they have or had at least three warheads." Colarusso, who advised the Clinton administration on Chechnya, said that in November 1991, Russia`s former defense minister, Pavel Grachev, "sold" the Russian arsenal in Grozny to Chechnya`s late separatist president, Dzhokhar Dudayev. Among the weapons was a nuclear-tipped, air-to-surface missile.
Colarusso said the rebels found two more warheads in an abandoned ballistic missile silo in the Chechen village of Bamut. The missiles in the silo had been destroyed in the mid-1970s by a propellant fire, leaving two warheads lying at the bottom of the shafts. The CIA reportedly sent officers to Chechnya to inspect the weapons but never were able to confirm their existence.
Few specialists doubt that the Chechen rebels, locked in an eight-year conflict with Moscow that has claimed tens of thousands of lives on each side, have the motivation to seek more powerful weapons in their struggle. But there is debate about whether they have the desire, or the means, to resort to nuclear terror.
A rebel Web site, Kavkaz.org, in July denounced a report in a British newspaper, citing an anonymous US official, that Chechen rebels had stolen weapons-grade material from a reactor in southern Russia. The rebels said the article was an attempt to slander the Chechen people. Russian officials also denied the report, and one security officer called it an attempt by the CIA to discredit Russia`s nuclear establishment.
Russia`s military flatly denies that Chechens have, or ever have had, nuclear weapons. The commander of Russia`s nuclear arsenal, Colonel General Igor Valynkin, has reported two efforts by armed groups to probe the defenses at nuclear weapons storage sites. Valynkin told reporters in October 2001 that his troops provide impenetrable protection of the sites.
But the security of Russia`s nuclear facilities has been a major concern since the Soviet Union`s 1991 collapse led to financial woes that prompted cuts in security at state-owned facilities. That, plus widespread poverty, might motivate workers in the nuclear sector to try to sell atomic materials.
Yuri Vishnyevsky, the head of Russia`s nuclear regulatory commission, told reporters earlier this month that a small amount of weapons-grade nuclear material and a larger amount of non-weapons-grade nuclear fuel had gone missing from nuclear facilities. He said security at Russia`s facilities across the country, though improved since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was still inadequate.
The reactor-grade material could be enriched to weapons-grade through a complicated process that some countries trying to develop nuclear weapons, such as Iraq, may already possess. At least some Chechen rebels say separatists could attack nuclear sites, if not use nuclear weapons.
"Terrorist acts are possible. We cannot exclude that the next such group takes over some nuclear facility," Zakayev, an aide to separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, said Oct. 29, the day after the assault by Russian special forces to free over 800 captives in a Moscow theater, which left 129 hostages and 41 Chechen militants dead. Zakayev added that Maskhadov did not condone such attacks.
But another rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, who often acts independently of Maskhadov, has since threatened to launch "terrorist attacks" on all "military, economic, and strategic facilities" if Russia does not withdraw its forces that have been fighting in Chechnya since 1999.
It was Basayev who demonstrated his readiness to use nuclear terrorism to achieve political goals by burying a container of radioactive Caesium-137 in Moscow`s Izmailovsky Park in 1995. Basayev alerted Russian reporters, and police removed the device.
"Chechens already have access to the radioactive materials they would need to set off a dirty bomb," said Stanford`s Zaitseva. "Even if they were not actually going to carry out such attacks, they definitely knew what would frighten Russians."
It may serve Moscow`s interests to exaggerate the Chechens` willingness to play the nuclear card.
Matthew Bunn, senior research assistant at the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University, said that one thing that complicates sorting out reports of Chechens and nuclear material is "the Russian government`s tendency to ascribe any and all forms of evil behavior to the Chechens."
Bunn said some of the reports would be "quite a concern from the perspective of dirty bombs, but one doesn`t know how many of these are true."
Moscow media quoted sources in the Federal Security Service as saying the murder of renowned nuclear chemist Sergei Bakhvalov in August may have been linked to a plot by terrorists seeking to obtain nuclear expertise, material, or equipment.
Those reports were published after an article appeared in the mainstream Lebanese newsweekly Al-Watan Al-Arabi, describing a deal between followers of Osama bin Laden and Chechen warlords in Grozny in which the Chechens received $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for approximately 20 nuclear warheads. Author Yosef Bodansky, in a book about bin Laden, "The Man Who Declared War on America," cites Russian and Arab intelligence sources as saying that Chechen rebels facilitated the sale of nuclear "suitcase bombs" in the late 1990s from former Soviet nuclear facilities.
If that deal ever took place, no official in Russia or the United States has confirmed it. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency says it has no evidence that Chechens have sold radioactive material to terrorists.
Russian officials only publicly announce theft of nuclear materials when they catch the thief. One elaborate scheme in 1996 allegedly involved a Chechen rebel plan to steal a sub in the Pacific and remove a nuclear weapon; Russian security officers foiled the bid.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said that "orphaned" nuclear material, such as atomic-powered field generators and radioactive powder, is scattered across the former Soviet Union, including Chechnya. And the war provided the rebels with access to radioactive sources such as Radon, a former site for radioactive waste disposal in Grozny.
"Some of these sites have quite nasty, intensely radioactive items that would be useful for a dirty bomb," Bunn said.
The data compiled by Stanford`s Zaitseva indicate that a large amount of highly radioactive waste stored at Radon went missing after the first military campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya ended in 1996. Russian nuclear workers found much of the missing materials after federal troops returned to Chechnya in October 1999. Some of it was buried in a Grozny suburb where Basayev had reportedly set up a workshop for making explosives.
But the only evidence that anyone in Chechnya intended to build dirty bombs was discovered near a railway line outside Argun, 10 miles east of Grozny, in 1998, when a container full of radioactive substances was found with a mine attached to it.
Colarusso, the former Clinton administration adviser, believes the rebels` intention would be to employ any nuclear weapons they acquire as a bargaining chip.
Your opinion (comments to the article)?
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Ali, 23.06.2004 6:11:06
think for a second, if chechens had and wanted to nuclear weapons on the Russians, why didnt or havent they? Have they not been tortured enough? chechens have essentially brought knives to a gun fight for the last 10 years, and still managed to fight to a draw. Access to stronger weapons doesnt serve their purpose.
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