Uranium May Be From Novosibirsk

TBILISI, Georgia -- A Russian arrested on suspicion of smuggling weapons-grade uranium into Georgia in his pockets may have obtained it in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

The Georgian authorities say they have not established the origin of the uranium, but a document seen Friday indicated that the trail could lead to Russia's Siberian heartland, home to a large number of nuclear facilities and vast stockpiles of radioactive material.

Georgia said Thursday that it had arrested Russian citizen Oleg Khinsagov in a sting operation last year after he entered the country and tried to sell highly enriched uranium to agents posing as Islamist militants.

But the case has revived worries about the safety of material left over from the Soviet Union. Proliferation experts had thought the danger of it falling into the wrong hands had declined with tighter security since the chaotic 1990s.

The document, marked confidential, appeared to be a fax sent by Russia's Federal Security Service to the Georgian Interior Ministry in response to a Georgian request for help in investigating the smuggling case.

"At the current time we are conducting an investigation to study [Khinsagov's and other suspects'] links with regard to their possible involvement in the illegal trade in radioactive materials," the document said.

"We are also conducting checks into Khinsagov's testimony about his possible acquisition of the uranium in the town of Novosibirsk," said the document, dated May 2006.

It contained no further evidence of a direct link to Novosibirsk. It said Khinsagov had booked flights to two nearby cities in 2000.

According to the document, the uranium-235 had not undergone processing for more than 10 years. That indicated it dated back to a period in the 1990s when international experts say security at Russian nuclear facilities was lax.

A Georgian Interior Ministry official who declined to give his name said the document was genuine, including the reference to Novosibirsk.

A spokesman for the FSB, when asked about the document Friday, declined immediate comment.

Khinsagov was arrested by Georgian agents with 100 grams of highly enriched uranium-235 that he carried in plastic bags in his pockets.

Highly enriched uranium, in sufficient quantities, can be used to make a bomb. The United Nations' nuclear watchdog said any smuggling of the material was a matter of "very high concern."

In Moscow, analysts and officials said they believed Georgia's decision to go public with the incident a year after Khinsagov's arrest was a public relations ploy to discredit Russia.

"On the facts I have I can say that this is a provocative act," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Vladivostok. He said Russia was ready to cooperate with Tbilisi on the case.

Georgia's pro-Western leadership is locked in a bitter dispute with Moscow that broke out last year when Tbilisi expelled four Russian army officers it accused of spying.

"The attempt by Georgia to earn some political mileage from this case ... will provoke serious irritation," said Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of the Center for Policy Studies.

Khlopkov, a respected expert on nuclear proliferation, said: "I would not say the security of nuclear materials in Russia is [a matter] of concern. I would say the level of security is rather high."