Washington, 2 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A White House spokesman says the U.S. still has confidence in the security of the nuclear arsenal stored in the former Soviet Union despite the recent arrest of two Lithuanians in the southern U.S. state of Florida on charges of conspiring to sell nuclear weapons.
Michael McCurry said at the daily White House press briefing Tuesday that the U.S. believes there is still "effective command and control" over the nuclear materials in the former USSR. He added that the topic is a "regular and a constant feature" of bilateral discussions between Russian and American authorities.
McCurry declined to comment directly on the Florida case, saying it was now a matter for the courts.
During a press conference Monday in Miami, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie identified the two men under arrest and currently being held without bail as Alexander Pogrebeshski, 28, and Aleksandr Darichev, 36, both Lithuanian nationals.
There was some initial confusion as to the men's citizenship since court papers identified Pogrebeshski as a Latvian, not a Lithuanian, national.
But Gregorie told RFE/RL that the listing of Pogrebeshski as a Latvian in the affidavit was a mistake.
This was confirmed by the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington which told RFE/RL that both men are indeed Lithuanian citizens.
According to federal officials, the arrests of the Lithuanians followed a two-year undercover operation which started out as an investigation into an international car theft ring, but ended up with agents negotiating to buy nuclear weapons from the two suspects.
Court papers say that authorities first heard about Pogrebeshski and Darichev when it was brought to their attention that two men were seeking partners for a ring to ship stolen cars from Florida to Lithuania.
After determining the men's identities, two native Russian-speaking federal agents went undercover, posing as representatives of a Colombian drug cartel.
But soon afterward, Pogrebeshski inquired as to whether the agents would be interested in purchasing anti-aircraft missiles and tactical nuclear weapons.
The two Lithuanians were arrested Friday after agents completed arrangements for a 1.3 million dollar deal to purchase surface-to-air missiles. The missiles were to have been shipped through Bulgaria, according to documents filed with the court.
No weapons were ever actually exchanged, however.
Officials decided to arrest the two men on Friday because they did not want them to leave the U.S. and could not ensure the "safety or integrity of the weapons" if the deal was to actually go through.
Pogrebeshski and Darichev appeared in a Miami court on Tuesday to face charges of conspiring to deal in explosive materials without a license, and possession with intent to sell nuclear weapons.
Gregorie says that on Monday, July 7, the two men will attend a pre-trial detention hearing which will explain the reasons why they are being held without bond, meaning they cannot post bail and be released until their trial.
Gregorie says that a federal grand jury will then have 10 business days to decide whether there is enough evidence for the two men to be indicted on the charges filed by the prosecution.
Both Pogrebeshski and Darichev have been assigned lawyers to defend them.