Reuters: Countries suspsected of seeking nuclear arms may have exploited lax security in the Democratic Republic of Congo to get their hands on uranium from the giant central African state, diplomatic and intelligence sources say. By Louis Charbonneau
BERLIN, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Countries suspsected of seeking nuclear arms may have exploited lax security in the Democratic Republic of Congo to get their hands on uranium from the giant central African state, diplomatic and intelligence sources say.
During World War Two when it was still a Belgian colony, Congo provided high-quality uranium for the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. programme that produced the two atomic weapons dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Congo’s Supreme Court this week confirmed the election of Joseph Kabila as the giant central African state’s first elected leader in 40 years, capping a peace process ending a 1998-2003 war which devastated the country and killed 4 million people.
The newly elected president has many challenges ahead of him and diplomats say one of them is making sure the Shinkolobwe mines in the unstable Katanga province are securely safeguarded.
“For quite some time there have been suspicions that Iran has been trying to exploit the chaos in Congo and purchase uranium via middlemen. There is no hard proof but there are indications there may be something to the suspicion,” a European diplomat told Reuters, citing his country’s intelligence.
Several other Western security sources echoed this view.
Tehran says its nuclear programme is aimed solely at producing electricity and has denied getting uranium from Congo.
Raw uranium from Congo would have to be processed and enriched to a very high level of purity in order to be usable in weapons. Iran has its own limited uranium deposits but has made little progress in exploiting them, diplomats said.
IAEA PLANS MISSION TO CONGO
One Western diplomat said the United Nations’ Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was planning to send a routine mission to Congo next year to look at the mine and assess the credibility of the allegations that uranium might have left Congo for places like Iran.
“Let’s suppose Iran was running a parallel (secret) uranium enrichment programme. Where would they get the resources? Congo would be an obvious choice,” said one Western diplomat.
“This is why the IAEA is interested,” he added.
Congo allows the IAEA to conduct intrusive, short-notice inspections, several Vienna diplomats said.
“Congo is also in the sights of the U.N. Security Council, which follows and reports events there regularly,” one said.
But German officials familiar with the security situation on the ground in Congo, where Germany has been leading a 4-month-old European military mission to ensure the elections were peaceful, confirmed conditions remained chaotic.
Safety conditions at the mine reflect the poor security at the site, diplomats said.
When Congo was granted independence in 1960, Belgium sealed the Shinkolobwe mine by filling its shafts with concrete. At the time the mine was shut, Congo supplied 60 percent of the world’s uranium, according to the security website Globalsecurity.org.
Despite this, diplomats say hordes of poor free-lance miners continue to dig at Shinkolobwe with pickaxes and shovels, though most appear to be hunting for cobalt and copper, not uranium.
The conditions there are so bad that in July 2004 a mine at Shinkolobwe collapsed and killed eight people. A subsequent U.N. report described conditions there as “anarchistic … (with) no respect for mining safety regulations.”
(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna, David Lewis in Kinshasa and Parisa Hafezi in Tehran)