Munich, Feb. 16 (RFE/RL) - Germans have been fascinated for months with a mystery story about stolen plutonium, smuggled from Russia, and seized at Munich airport by local security authorities on a tip-off from Germany's foreign intelligence service.
The 360 grams of weapons-grade plutonium was seized August 10, 1994. At first it was acclaimed by the Government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and by most of the media as a great coup. It enabled Germany to put pressure on Russia to improve security at nuclear installations, and stop what was believed to be a flood of stolen nuclear materials reaching the criminal underground in the West.
The Columbian, who brought the Plutonium to Munich, and two Spanish accomplices were convicted and jailed for several years.
Then, the congratulations stopped.
A German magazine published a detailed report, suggesting that the whole affair had been instigated and stage-managed by Germany's foreign intelligence service to demonstrate a lack of security at Russian nuclear installations, and to boost its own image as the nation's security watchdog. The charges prompted investigations by Germany's Federal parliament, and the provincial parliament which are still continuing. For months, the public has heard different versions told by intelligence chiefs, government officials and the men convicted of the smuggling. As several newspapers have said, the truth remains elusive.
This week, there was a new development, which briefly led Bonn to claim the intelligence service had been proved innocent of the allegations against it. But within a day, came a move from Russia which has only added to the puzzle.
The official case has always been that the weapons-grade plutonium was obtained from Russia. Russia has never confirmed this, and some Russian officials have vigorously denied it. But at the beginning of the week, German officials said the justice ministry had received a letter from Russia's security service (FSB), acknowledging that the plutonium smuggled to Munich had been taken from the nuclear facility at Obninsk, southwest of Moscow. The letter allegedly said three Russians had been arrested for their role in the theft, and asked Germany to provide information which would help the investigations.
From a German point of view, the letter was politically important. It gave a date on which the buyer in Russia allegedly inspected the plutonium offered for sale. This was several weeks earlier than the date on which Germany's foreign intelligence was alleged to have become involved. It seemed to clear the intelligence service of stage-managing the whole affair.
The letter was given wide publicity in the German media.
Some newspapers said they had seen copies of it. The Government spokesman appeared on television to claim it had proved the innocence of the foreign intelligence service.
But just a day later, Russia's security service issued a statement, denying that it had declared Russia to be the source of the plutonium. Russia's security service said its letter had asked Bonn to send samples of the plutonium seized in Germany to Moscow for testing. It said the origin of the material could be determined only after such tests had been completed. The letter also accused German of delaying its reply, and said this was impeding investigations against "a group accused of illegally, acquiring, storing and distributing radioactive material."
The Russian denial appears to be confined to the claim that Moscow had confirmed that the plutonium came from Obninsk. There has been no Russian comment on other details in the letter. According to the German press, these tell how the Columbian, who brought the plutonium to Munich, contacted a scientist and eventually obtained the material.
Nor is it clear how the Russian denial affects the German foreign intelligence service. Some commentators say that if the plutonium did not come from Russia, then the date on which it was inspected by the buyer might not clear the intelligence service after all.
The security authorities have said frequently that, although they knew the plutonium was to be smuggled to Munich, they did not know exactly how it would come - by air or overland. In fact, it was apparently smuggled to Munich on a German airliner (Lufthansa) on a regular flight from Moscow. Yesterday, the airliner's pilot, Jakob Niggl, gave his views in an interview with the respected Munich newspaper "Suddeutsche Zeitung". Niggl said it was clear that the security authorities knew in advance that the plutonium was coming. In the interview, he says that the big police presence at the airport and other activities, such as testing the interior of the plane for radiation as soon as it landed, left no doubt in his mind that they knew.
Niggl's comments are spiced with anger at the security authorities. He told the newspaper: "even if they had no more than a suspicion that radioactive material might be on board, the machine should never have been allowed to take-off in Moscow for safety reasons. As a pilot I am furious that one cannot rely on our security authorities." He has now brought a court case against the security authorities for endangering the plane and its passengers.
The press accounts of this week's latter from Russia gives the enthralled German public new information to add to the rival versions told by the security authorities and by the magazine which claims the affair was stage-managed.
The official version is that Spanish agents of Germany's intelligence service heard in Madrid in July 1994 that an amount of plutonium was soon to be delivered to Munich. The intelligence service informed the local criminal authorities in Munich, and after that, played only a peripheral role in the affair, giving assistance to the Munich authorities only when asked.
The magazine's version is that Germany's intelligence service deliberately informed criminal circles in Spain that a group of buyers was seeking weapons-grade plutonium from Russia, and wanted it delivered to Munich. Spain was apparently chosen because the criminal underground there is heavily involved in smuggling, including drugs and arms. The magazine published what it said were the cover names of various agents of the intelligence service who were involved. Its version says the intelligence service eventually developed the necessary contacts, which led to the plutonium being brought to Munich by the Columbian, Justiniano Torres.
This version was supported by evidence given to a parliamentary commission by one of the security service's agents in Spain, Rafael Ferraras. He told the commission that he had been ordered by the security service to entice potential smugglers by offering large sums of money for plutonium brought to Germany. but - Ferraras told a completely different story to the court which sentenced Torres and his two Spanish accomplices. At that time, Ferraras denied that the affair had been instigated by the security service.
There have since been allegations from some sides that he might have been paid by the security service to tell this version to the court. Naturally, the security service denies it.
These stories are now supplemented by the German press reports of what was in the letter from Moscow. Their version of the letter says it claims Torres went to a Moscow scientist to obtain Plutonium. It is said this individual obtained it through several middlemen.
According to the press reports, the Moscow letter alleges that in June 1994 Torres paid two thousand dollars for two grams of "radioactive material" for a quality control. At the beginning of August 1994, he then obtained about 400 grams of "the same radioactive material." This is said to be the 363.4 grams of weapons-grade plutonium which was seized at Munich airport. It is the June date which encouraged the German authorities to say that the foreign intelligence was in the clear, because they did not know about the affair until July.
German authorities say it may be a year before the two parliamentary commissions are able to produce reports on the affair. No one is willing to predict whether all the facts will come to light. Munich's "Suddeutsche Zeitung" says: "probably not."
In the meantime, yet another accusation has been made against Germany's foreign intelligence service. Yesterday, a German television program claimed to have information that the intelligence service had smuggled plutonium from Ukraine in 1994. The program quoted from what were said to be secret documents, indicating that a courier was to fly to Munich from Kiev on four successive days, bringing a total of 3.8 kilograms of plutonium to be passed-on to the intelligence service. The intelligence service has denied the claim. But it is yet another factor in the mystery.