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Transdniester: Missing Missiles Raising Fears Of 'Dirty Bombs' For Sale

International media reported this week that dozens of small missiles believed to have been modified to carry radioactive material have apparently gone missing in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region. Reports that Transdniester, long-known as a hub for illegal weapons, could have sold what are known as "dirty bombs" to international terrorist groups are prompting officials and analysts to renew calls for a durable settlement in the region.

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is a thin, 1-meter-long rocket whose intended function was to spread chemicals on storm clouds to prevent hail over the Soviet Union.

Instead, the only thing the Alazan rocket spread successfully was fear. The missile, initially part of a failed Soviet experiment in weather control, was later used for military purposes in the early 1990s in various conflicts in the former Soviet region.

Now, there are suspicions that the Alazan rockets could have been outfitted with warheads containing radioactive waste and turned into what are known as "dirty bombs." Western media outlets reported this week that dozens of such rockets appear to have gone missing in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester.

Media reports quote documents apparently acquired by Oazu Nantoi, a former Moldovan government official and political analyst. Nantoi says he is in possession of Transdniestrian military documents, dated 1994, that speak about the existence of 38 radioactive warheads for Alazan missiles, out of which 24 had allegedly been attached to rockets.

Nantoi tells RFE/RL that such dirty bomb-type missiles could end up in the hands of international terrorist groups, since Transdniester is notorious for selling weapons from former Soviet arsenals on its territory:

"Based on the documents we have, regarding the radiation dose and the pollution, it is obvious that these missiles represent a real danger. And if we take into account that the so-called dirty bombs have become 'fashionable,' at least according to media reports, we cannot rule out that these missiles could also end up in the hands of terrorist groups. Transdniester is renowned for the fact that here you can buy almost any type of weapon and ammunition that belonged to the former [Soviet] 14th Army [stationed in the region]," Nantoi said.

Nantoi says the documents were obtained in 2001 by the Institute for Policy Studies, a Chisinau-based nongovernmental organization which he heads. He told RFE/RL that the documents reveal that personnel who worked with the radioactive warheads were exposed to high doses of radiation and that their uniforms had to be burned and buried.

Nantoi says the last known location of the missiles is believed to have been a military airfield near Tiraspol, the capital of the separatist region. He says it is not known what happened to the rockets after 2001.

Both separatist officials and commanders of the 2,500 Russian troops stationed in Transdniester vehemently deny reports about the existence of the modified Alazan missiles.

Transdniestrian authorities have repeatedly refused to allow international inspections at the huge military depots on their territory.

Klaus Neukirch is the spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe's mission in Chisinau. He tells RFE/RL that the OSCE is aware of the reports and is investigating them but would make no further comment.

Richard Boucher, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, yesterday told the press that although the U.S. cannot confirm the reports, it, too, is investigating them.

"It's not something that we can substantiate. We've done some looking into it, [but] at this point we don't have information that would substantiate those reports. We can't confirm the existence of this material or the reported movements, but we'll continue to look into these reports and see if we can track down any of the pieces that were there," Boucher said.

Reports about the possible involvement of Transdniester in the production of dirty bombs once again highlight the separatists' long-time involvement in money-laundering and the manufacturing and smuggling of weapons, as well as trafficking in human beings and drugs.

Secessionists in Russian-speaking Transdniester maintain control over the enclave's borders with Ukraine, across which most of the smuggling takes place. The region's leader, Igor Smirnov, and his son, Vladimir, are believed to have almost exclusive control over the lucrative criminal activities in the area.

The dispute between Transdniester and the rest of Moldova remains unresolved. Decade-long talks supervised by the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine have failed repeatedly, attracting criticism that Russia is unofficially supporting the separatists, although Moscow has not formally recognized Transdniester's existence.

The quagmire remains as deep as ever after Moldova last month turned down a Russian plan proposing de facto independence for Transdniester and a long-term extension of the presence of Russian forces.

Analysts say a fair and durable settlement of the dispute is possible only with greater involvement of the international community.

Tamara Makarenko is an expert on terrorism at the British-based Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. She tells RFE/RL that failure to bring Transdniester's arms activities under control could have grave consequences:

"Without the effective use of the rule of law and the establishment of law and order, then you're talking about an area that would increasingly pose a risk to the surrounding region. Therefore, I think it's up to a number of international parties and international actors, whether they are states or international organizations such as the UN, to assert some sort of pressure to ensure that, essentially, speaking rhetorically, Transdniester pulls its socks up," Makarenko said.

Makarenko said that, in the post-September 11 environment, Western politicians and analysts are increasingly aware of Transdniester as a hub for weapons smuggling. She expressed surprise that the international community has not taken more concrete steps to stabilize the region:

"We were all concerned about Pankisi Gorge, for example, right after September 11, just because there was evidence that terrorist groups used it directly as a training ground. Although we are concerned about training grounds, my question remains, why aren't we concerned about areas that are used as smuggling havens, because from those areas all types of illicit actors -- whether that's organized crime, corrupt political actors or terrorist groups, of course -- benefit from the operation in those regions. Therefore, I think that the international community once and for all has to begin focusing on the area and exerting pressure on the region to help clean it up," Makarenko said.

There is now renewed hope of greater Western involvement in resolving the Moldovan conflict. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this month called for the establishment of an international peacekeeping force for Moldova. Meanwhile, the European Union has promised by May an action plan for greater European integration of Moldova.