Uzbeks block Central Asia's nuclear corridor

America pours cash and training into Uzbekistan to stop transfer of nuclear materials

Like a database of criminal mug shots, a computer at this Central Asian border post keeps one photographic image of every vehicle that passes – along with a record of its radiation level.

Every vehicle, every bag, and every body that passes through the ornate silver-domed portal into Uzbekistan from Kazakh- stan is quietly scanned for radioactive contraband by a state-of-the-art detector paid for by the United States.

This sweltering, dusty crossroads is another unlikely frontline in US-funded international efforts to prevent terrorism.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asia has been seen as an "easy" region to acquire and smuggle nuclear materials, where newly independent nations have weak border controls. That has meant potentially rich pickings for groups like Al Qaeda, which could build a radiological "dirty" bomb far more easily than a typical nuclear weapon. There have been 181 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials from 1993 until the end of last year, according to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. Senior US officials say that Jose Padilla, an alleged Al Qaeda operative and an American citizen arrested in May, was part of an effort to build a radiological dirty bomb with nuclear material from Central Asia.

A "dirty" bomb spreads radiation with the blast of a conventional explosive. It is built with radioactive material such as the contents of the 10 lead containers concealed in a truck full of scrap metal that passed through these same gates in March 2000 from Kazakhstan. The haul was discovered by Uzbek customs officials with portable radiation "pagers" provided by US Customs officials. The Iranian driver was bound for Pakistan.

In the early 1990s, the risk of nuclear smuggling caught the attention of American officials. In 1994, the US airlifted out more than 1,300 pounds of highly enriched uranium from Kazkh- stan. In 1996, there were reports of purchasing teams from Iran (which Washington believes to be pursuing nuclear weapon capability) making visits there.

In April 2000, shortly after the lead containers were found by the Uzbeks, then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a visit to the capital, Tashkent announced a $3 million package to improve border security.

The US has an array of programs run by the US Customs Service and Departments of Energy, State, and the Defense aimed at controlling nuclear smuggling. But a June report by the US General Accounting Office criticized the programs in 30 countries for absence of an overall strategy among those four federal agencies, plus the FBI, and the Coast Guard. Still, US and Uzbek officials here say they are making a difference.

Uzbeks were among some 80 Central Asian customs and border officials who took part in a three-week US Customs training course in Hidalgo, Texas, just prior to Sept. 11. They were trained to detect nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons components with state-of-the-art methods, from fiber-optic scopes and X-ray equipment to computers.

SINCE Sept. 11, security upgrades at nuclear power and training facilities in Uzbekistan have been stepped up, just as the massive Nuclear Threat Reduction program in Russia has received a new life – and hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding – from a Bush White House that before Sept. 11 was skeptical of the program.

"The whole world is concerned about this stuff," says Bekhzod Yuldashev, head of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Tashkent and president of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. Uzbekistan is a "pivotal transit point," and will become more critical, he says, as work progresses on a highway linking Paris with Shanghai.

On a recent afternoon, as Uzbek customs officials watched a long-haul truck pass through the scanner, the alarms sound. The detection device is so sensitive that, in this case, it picked up higher than normal natural radiation levels in a load of marble construction materials. False alarm.

Similar US and European-funded equipment – including an array of hand-held and smaller, belt-clip detectors – are used at the airport in Tashkent, and elsewhere.

"Don't you worry in America, because we deeply understand the danger of radiation and weapons of mass destruction," says Col. Jalilov Sadridin, an Uzbek customs official standing over the computer. "This is the first line of our struggle in this region, because Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan lost control of their nuclear materials. There are so many sources."

How confident is Colonel Sadridin that Uzbekistan with help from US and European donors and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency can stop such smuggling? "One hundred percent," he replies.

The radiation detectors alone can't stop smuggling. They are not designed, for example, to detect bribes to border control officials. But a Western diplomat in Tashkent says that the cooperation of Uzbekistan – which never had a nuclear weapons capability under Soviet rule, but sits at the heart of Central Asian transit routes – is "extremely" important.

The problem for Uzbekistan is transport of nuclear materials from north to south, the opposite of the path for drugs traveling from Afghanistan along the so-called "northern route" through Central Asia to Europe.

"We have nuclear neighbors, Russia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and India," says Mr. Yuldashev. "Uzbekistan plays an important role. Transit [of all goods] is very intensive."

Uzbeks are proud of their track record. A customs museum in Tashkent illustrates successes that in the past decade have netted 30 tons of drugs such as opium and heroin traveling north to Europe, and 70 tons of precursor chemicals traveling south to Afghanistan, for Taliban labs to turn opium into heroin.

Photographs show the ruses: plastic sacks stuffed with heroin immersed in jugs of tomato paste; a car being shipped whole in a container full of household goods – and a drive shaft crammed with heroin.

"We are trying our best," says Sadridin. "The US is helping us to do that."

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