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Russia: Were Intelligence Officers Involved In Plutonium Smuggling?

Munich, 6 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - The German government is now suggesting that money-hungry Russian intelligence officers were responsible for smuggling weapons-grade plutonium into Germany in August, 1994.

The government's co-ordinator for intelligence matters, Bernd Schmidbauer, offered this idea last week to the two parliamentary committees investigating the affair.

Russia's foreign intelligence service (SWR) rejected the allegations after Schmidbauer presented them last week to a committee of the Federal parliament in Bonn. The SWR spokeswoman, Tatiana Samolis dismmissed them as "absurd." But Schmidbauer repeated the claims when giving evidence to a committee of the Bavarian provincial parliament this week.

A RFE/RL correspondent in Munich reports the news has been received with cautious interest by the German public, which has heard several other versions of the story over the past two-and-a-half years.

Originally the Bonn government hailed the seizure of the plutonium, which happened in August 1994 at the Munich airport. The arrest of the smugglers was seen as a triumph for the German security forces. But the mood was soon tarnished by claims that suggested the whole operation had been created by Germany's foreign intelligence service, both to boost its own reputation and to publicize its charges of weak security at Russian nuclear installations. Two parliamentary commissions were created to discover the truth, but neither has yet issued a report despite 20 months of hearing witnesses.

Schmidbauer's testimony was given in private. But RFE/RL correspondent reports that leaks from those attending the hearings say Schmidbauer based his testimony on information provided by the U.S. intelligence agency, the CIA. The CIA is said to have obtained it from its own sources inside Russia.

According to the leaks, Schmidbauer said the smuggling operation appeared to have been instigated by Russian intelligence officers who hoped to earn millions by smuggling nuclear material to the West for sale.

The 363 grams of plutonium which taken to Munich allegedly came from a Russian nuclear research station at Obninsk, not far from Moscow. It is alleged that a chemist named as Gennadi Nikiforov was asked to obtain the plutonium and in turn give it to a man named Penkov, who lived in Obninsk. Nikiforov went to two other men who eventually provided the plutonium.

A year ago, German press said the intelligence service had received reports that the plutonium came from Obninsk and that three Russian citizens were being investigated for its theft. This story later vanished in a cloud of denials by some Russian officials that the one case had anything to do with the other.

The RFE/RL correspondent says the original reports of the affair said the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, had learned of the plot to smuggle the plutonium to Germany from its agents in Spain; they had picked it up from contacts in the Spanish underworld.

When the plutonium was seized at Munich airport, authorities arrested two Spaniards and a man identified as Justiniano Torres, who was said to be from Colombia, in South America. The two Spaniards have since completed their jail sentences but Torres is still imprisoned. He is not scheduled for release until 1999.

Schmidbauer is said to have suggested that Torres may have worked for Russian intelligence all along. According to the leaks, Torres studied medicine in Russia and is said to have married a Russian. Some reports quote unidentified sources as saying the ring of Russian intelligence officers originally hoped to smuggle weapons out of the country for sale but then decided nuclear materials were more profitable.

Schmidbauer is said to have told the committees that the plot was eventually uncovered in Moscow. According to the CIA report, Russian intelligence then decided to turn it to their advantage. According to this version, Russian intelligence decided to provided "disinformation" about the scheme to the German newsmagazine "Der Spiegel" through third parties. The resulting story in "Der Spiegel" in April 1995 created an uproar. It suggested that the whole operation might have been instigated by the German intelligence service for its own purposes.

In his evidence to the parliamentarians, Schmidbauer apparently said that Russian intelligence succeeded in damaging the reputation of the German intelligence service through its disinformation operation.

Schmidbauer's latest account has been welcomed as credible by some Government politicians. The chairman of the bavarian parliamentary committee, Manfred Weiss, from the governing party, told newspapers that it was a fair assumption that senior people in Russia must have been involved.

"No one could believe that the caretaker of a nuclear research unit could simply stuff plutonium in his trouser pocket and walk out with it," he said. The Bavarian interior minister, Guenther Beckstein, has also said the new report sounds realistic and called for a closer investigation by german authorities.

There are still many open questions and a great deal of room for even more versions of what happened. As Schmidbauer himself has said the background of the whole affair remains shrouded in mystery. One German newspaper suggested it might be time to call in Sherlock Holmes.