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Missiles Outfitted With "Dirty Bomb" Warheads Apparently Missing, Expert Says

Associated Press

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) - Dozens of rockets outfitted with so-called dirty bombs - warheads designed to scatter deadly radioactive material - appear to be missing in a breakaway region of Moldova, an expert said Monday.

Oazu Nantoi, a political analyst who works at the non-governmental Institute for Policy Studies in Chisinau, said he had seen photocopies of Russian military documents showing that the dirty bomb warheads - 24 ready to use, 14 dismantled - were missing from a storage depot near the Trans-Dniester Tiraspol military airport.

Nantoi is a respected expert on the region of Trans-Dniester, which is populated by ethnic Slavs and has been policed by thousands of Russian troops since the region's fight for independence from Moldova 12 years ago. Moldova has strong ethnic and cultural links to neighboring Romania.

The possibility the warheads were missing was first published in The Washington Post on Sunday.

Nantoi said the documents came from a disgruntled Russian military official who claimed he had not received compensation for being exposed to radioactive material.

The possibility of terrorists acquiring dirty bombs is a main concern of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said last week that his agency, which tries to cap the spread of nuclear weapons, is now "spending a great deal of time working on this threat."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other agencies have expressed repeated concern about reports that the Trans-Dniester region is a major weapons smuggling center.

Moldova is a former Soviet republic and thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition remain stored in Trans-Dniester after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The region has a robust arms industry.

Nantoi said reports first reached him in 1998 that Alazan rockets - normally used in the former Soviet Union for weather experiments - had been fitted with warheads modified to carry radioactive material.

Since then, the rockets and warheads appear to have disappeared from their storage area, and "I could not discover what had happened to them," he told the AP.

"We tried to work with Moldovan officials, but there wasn't a clear investigation, because the territory is not controlled by Moldova," he said by telephone.

Trans-Dniester does not see itself as part of Moldova. It is not recognized internationally.

Moldova's government declined comment Monday, while an official of the Trans-Dniester Defense Ministry in Tiraspol called the claims "propaganda from Chisinau."

OSCE spokesman Claus Neukirch said he was familiar with the reports and that organization military experts were investigating. He declined to give details.

The OSCE, together with Russia and Ukraine, are mediators in the conflict in Trans-Dniester, which broke away ostensibly over fears that Moldova would reunite with Romania.

Some 1,500 people died in the fighting, which ended after a Moscow-brokered truce and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.

There are still about 2,000 Russian troops in the breakaway region, officially acting as peacekeepers and guarding an estimated 28,660 tons of ammunition.

Russia has promised the OSCE that it would withdraw the troops and ammunition by the end of the year, but progress has been slow.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin recently rejected a Russian peace plan, saying it would have given too much autonomy to Trans-Dniester.
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