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Kazakhstan: Astana Denies Links To Nuclear Smuggling Network

  • Sergei Danilochkin

Authorities in Kazakhstan deny the country's involvement in any international nuclear-technology-smuggling network. A company suspected of playing a role in the transfer of nuclear secrets and materials from Pakistan to Iran, Libya, and North Korea was reported to have offices in Almaty and Baku, Azerbaijan. That triggered speculation about a nuclear black market in these two former Soviet republics.

Prague, 2 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan is denying any connections to Dubai-based SMB Computers that could implicate it in an international black market in nuclear materials.

The interest in SMB Computers and its subsidiaries surfaced after U.S. President George W. Bush said the firm was a front for black-market deals in nuclear technology and that its principal owner was the "chief financial officer and money launderer" in a nuclear-trafficking ring.

That man, Sri Lankan businessman Bukhary Syed Abu Tahir, has been linked to top Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan has confessed to leaking nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

“There were several cases [in Kazakhstan] when similar companies were involved in the nuclear power-related operations without any license. There were several court cases on that in the past."
Mukhtar Anarbekov, a spokesperson for Kazakhstan's National Security Committee, told RFE/RL that SMB Computers is not officially registered in the country's commercial capital, Almaty, as suggested by press reports. "As a result of specially conducted investigations, it became clear that neither the company, nor its branches, have ever been registered in the Republic of Kazakhstan," Anarbekov said. "That company is also not on the list of companies licensed for activities in the sector of nuclear power. The persons mentioned in the newspapers have not entered Kazakhstan in 2000 to 2004."

The Kazakh State Atomic Energy Committee also said it has never done business with SMB Computers and never granted it a license for the export of nuclear materials.

According to SMB Computers' website, the company has a number of subsidiaries. One of them is Peripherals Gulf Limited, a Dubai-based distributor for computer giants such as Hewlett Packard. The website lists the firm as having business interests in the former Soviet republics and offices in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. That triggered speculation in the press that the company may have been seeking to smuggle nuclear materials from Kazakhstan, the world's fourth-largest producer of uranium ore.

A representative for Peripherals Gulf, Rahim, initially denied any knowledge of the company's activities in Almaty. "Frankly speaking, we are an IT [information technology] company. We are dealing in IT products, and that's all," he said. "I have no idea about [information on an Almaty branch]. We don't have an office in Almaty. That's all."

Following media reports, however, Rahim acknowledged the company had an office in Almaty but denied any operations in Baku. Attempts by RFE/RL to locate a Peripherals Gulf office in Baku were unsuccessful. Kazakh authorities deny that SMB or Peripherals Gulf conducted any official business in the country. They also rule out the companies' involvement in any nuclear-related deals.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Rustem Tursunbaev, vice president of the state-owned KazAtomProm nuclear company, dismissed the idea that enriched uranium could be smuggled out of Kazakhstan. "We completely rule out such a possibility. There is no highly enriched uranium in Kazakhstan. There are also no facilities in Kazakhstan to enrich uranium ore. So there is a lack of presence of this material, as well as the means to get it," Tursunbaev said.

The Kazakh security agency, as well as nuclear officials, say such materials are tightly controlled and could never be transferred outside the country illegally. It’s “impossible,” Tursunbaev said. “There has never been any accident of this kind throughout the history of Kazakhstan."

Kazakhstan inherited the world's fourth-largest nuclear weapons arsenal following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Experts have often raised questions about the integrity of the country's nuclear regulatory system. Alex Vatanka, an editor and analyst with London-based "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments," says he can envisage a scenario in which nuclear materials could be smuggled out of Kazakhstan. "There are elements in Kazakhstan, senior elements, who could have been bribed," he said. "We know corruption is a problem in Kazakhstan. We know that. I don't know if such materials [enriched uranium] are still in existence in Kazakhstan. But for the sake of argument -- if they are -- the question is: How much money would you have to pay to be able to buy it?"

The director of the Kazakh State Atomic Energy Committee, Timur Zhantikin, acknowledged to RFE/RL that such a scenario is not inconceivable. "That kind of situation is possible,” he said. “There were several cases [in Kazakhstan] when similar companies were involved in the nuclear power-related operations without any license. There were several court cases on that in the past."

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan transferred all its nuclear warheads to Russia and destroyed the infrastructure at Semipalatinsk, a major weapons test site. About 600 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium were removed to the United States. Kazakhstan is still suspected of possessing weapons-grade nuclear material, however, including at two nuclear research institutes.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report.)