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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Sale Rockets Vanish in Transdnestr

TIRASPOL, Moldova -- In the ethnic conflicts that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union, fighters in several countries seized upon an unlikely new weapon: a small, thin rocket known as the Alazan.

Originally built for weather experiments, the Alazan was transformed into a terror weapon, packed with explosives and lobbed into cities. Military records show that at least 38 Alazan warheads were modified to carry radioactive material, effectively creating the world's first surface-to-surface dirty bomb.

Now, according to experts and officials, the warheads have disappeared.

The last known repository was here, in a tiny separatist enclave, Transdnestr, that broke away from Moldova 12 years ago. The Transdnestr Moldovan Republic is a sliver of land no bigger than Rhode Island located along Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine. Its government is recognized by no other nation. But its weapons stocks -- new, used and modified -- have attracted the attention of black-market arms dealers worldwide. And they're for sale, according to U.S. and Moldovan officials and weapons experts.

When the Soviet army withdrew from this corner of Eastern Europe, the weapons were deposited into an arsenal of stupefying proportions. In fortified bunkers, 50,000 tons of aging artillery shells, mines and rockets are stored, enough to fill 2,500 boxcars.

Conventional arms originating in Transdnestr have been turning up for years in conflict zones from the Caucasus to Central Africa, evidence of what U.S. officials describe as an invisible pipeline for smuggled goods that runs through Tiraspol to the Black Sea and beyond. Now, governments and terrorism experts fear the same pipeline is carrying non-conventional weapons such as the radioactive Alazan, and that terrorists are starting to tap in.

"For terrorists, this is the best market you could imagine: cheap, efficient and forgotten by the whole world," said Vladimir Orlov, founding director of the Center for Policy Studies in Moscow, a group that studies proliferation issues.

Why the Alazan warheads were made is unknown. The urgent question -- Where are they now? -- is a matter of grave concern to terrorism and nonproliferation experts who know the damage such devices could do.

A dirty bomb is not a nuclear device but a weapon that uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, causing widespread disruption and exposing people to dangerous radiation.

Unlike other kinds of dirty bombs, this one would come with its own delivery system, and a 16-kilometer range. A number of terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, have sought to build or buy one.

While it has no nuclear bombs of its own, Transdnestr is regarded by experts as a prime shopping ground for outlaw groups for weapons of every type. It is the embodiment of the gray zone, where failed states, porous borders and weak law enforcement allow the buying and selling of instruments of terror.

Transdnestr possesses many of the trappings of statehood, including an army and border guards who demand visas and special entrance fees from visitors. But according to Western diplomats based in the region, these procedures are window dressing used to mask the activities of a small clique that runs the country by its own rules.

Much of the enclave's trade is controlled by a single company, Sheriff, which is owned by the son of the Transdnestr's president, Igor Smirnov. Vladimir Smirnov also heads the Transdnestr Customs Service, which oversees a river of goods flowing in and out of the country. The cargoes move through the Tiraspol airport; by truck overland to Ukraine or Moldova; and on a rail-to-ship line that connects the capital to the Black Sea port of Odessa. The Transdnestr interior minister, Maj. Gen. Vadim Shevtsov, is a former Soviet KGB agent wanted by Interpol for a murderous attack on pro-independence Latvians in 1991.

Organized crime figures and reputed terrorists flit in and out of the region, according to law enforcement and government officials in Moldova, and U.S. officials. Their cargoes are often disguised. "This is one of the places where the buyers connect with the sellers," said William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. "It's one-stop shopping for weapons and all kinds of other illicit goods. Very possibly, that includes the materials for weapons of mass destruction."

The enormous Soviet-style banners stretched across intersections in downtown Tiraspol bid visitors welcome to "The People's Pride: The Transdnestr Moldovan Republic." The city is locked in a Brezhnev-era time warp.

A large portion of the population is made up of Russian-speaking pensioners, many of them Soviet military retirees who served in the area and chose to stay because of the relatively mild climate. Like the elderly elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the retirees are nostalgic for a simpler, more predictable time when the socialist state took care of all their needs.

North of Tiraspol, an industrial center straddles the main rail line into town. Steam blasts from a complex of gray buildings housing the city's Elektromash works, a leading factory that describes itself officially as a producer of electrical engines. According to Moldovan and Western intelligence officials, the factory's product line includes assault rifles and machine pistols, a centerpiece of Transdnestr's most profitable industry: weapons.

Transdnestr has a long history as a production center for arms and weapons, including machine guns and rockets. Today, the tradition continues in at least six sprawling factories in the capital and the cities of Bendery and Rybnitsa, according to Ceslav Ciobanu, a former Moldovan ambassador to the United States.

Among the weapons in production are Grad and Duga multiple-rocket launchers, antitank mines, rocket-propelled grenades and multiple lines of small arms, Ciobanu said.

Several Moldova-based diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed there is an eastern flow of arms from Tiraspol to Odessa, the Ukrainian port on the Black Sea. They also described seizures of Transdnestr-made weapons in conflicts zones outside the enclave.

The largest weapons stockpile in Transdnestr is located at a massive arsenal near the northern town of Kolbasna. The arsenal currently holds an estimated 50,000 tons of munitions of all kinds, including large numbers of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.

Moldova has pressed Russia to remove the munitions and the 2,800 Russian troops who guard them. But over the years, both Russia and Transdnestr have used a variety of excuses to block or delay their departure. The arsenal is a major sticking points in ongoing negotiations aimed at reconciling Moldova and its former province, which fought a short, bloody civil war that ended in 1992. Transdnestr has opposed removing the stockpile, partly because it hopes to receive payment for the weapons, and also because the Russian presence has helped guarantee Transdnestr's survival as an autonomous region.

Moldova does not formally recognize that an independent Transdnestr exists. Thus, the largest border between them -- and the one most likely to be used for weapons trafficking -- is unprotected. On the Moldovan side, it has no checkpoints, no detectors and no guards.

The most unusual weapon in Transdnestr's arsenal was never meant to be a weapon at all. The Alazan, a slender, meter-long rocket, was part of a broader, rather extravagant Soviet experiment in weather control. Soviet scientists believed that hail could be suppressed by firing rockets into approaching storm clouds. The idea is vaguely similar to cloud-seeding as practiced in the United States. American scientists familiar with the anti-hail program say the results are highly dubious, at best.

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, scores of batteries of tube-fired Alazans were left throughout the Soviet bloc, including Eastern Europe. As ethnic clashes erupted in the newly independent former Soviet republics, the Alazan and a slightly larger rocket called the Alan, were reactivated for war.

Alazans were fired indiscriminately at civilian targets in the war between Azeri and Armenian forces over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and by separatists in South Ossetia in clashes with Georgian troops.

"Some of the reports indicated that the Alazan, which is notoriously inaccurate as a surface-to-surface missile, was used as a psychological or terror weapon," Potter said.

Since Soviet times, at least three Alazan batteries were known to exist in the Transdnestr region, as documented by military inventories of the time. In 1992, there was a confirmed case of attempted smuggling of Alazans for use as weapons.

But the existence of "radiological warheads" for the Alazan was unknown until two years ago, when military documents describing them were obtained by the Institute for Policy Studies, a research group in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital.

Oazu Nantoi, a former Moldovan government official and political analyst, sought in 2001 to trace the Alazans with radiological warheads, using contacts in Moldova and Transdnestr. He said that the last known location of the weapons was a military airfield north of Tiraspol, but what happened to them after the 1990s remains a mystery.

"They are not Scuds, but clearly, the only application for these rockets is a military one," said Nantoi. "Our fear is someone, somewhere, will turn these rockets into dirty bombs."