- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

TIRASPOL, Moldova — The deal involved Europe’s biggest Soviet army weapons cache, Russia’s prime minister and the leader of a separatist enclave in Moldova known as a gunrunner’s haven.

As described in a confidential 1998 agreement obtained by the Associated Press, Russia and Transnistria would share profits from the sale of 40,000 tons of “unnecessary” arms and ammunition stored in a weapons depot in the breakaway region.

The transaction is only one piece of an arms-dealing puzzle in Transnistria, where the decade-old depot also contained hundreds of portable surface-to-air missiles until last month, when Russia announced it had withdrawn them, amid concerns that they could end up in terrorist hands.

A former Moldovan official said Transnistria, a region the size of Rhode Island, also was a repository of rocket-mounted “dirty bombs” — warheads designed to scatter deadly radioactive material — that now are missing.

That widely publicized contention remains unresolved, with officials not even sure that the dirty bombs ever existed.

But an AP investigation involving interviews with a dozen officials and experts strengthened suspicions that Transnistria is a hotbed of unregulated weapons transactions, legal and illegal.

Moldova’s western neighbor, Romania, shares that view. Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said Transnistria is a “black hole of transborder organized crime, including drug smuggling, human trafficking and arms smuggling.”

Weapons from Transnistria have turned up in Russia’s restive Chechnya, in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region and in the hands of insurgents in Africa, said a minister of another country in the region. The official spoke on the condition that he not be named.

Experts say just about every sort of weapon is available in Transnistria.

“If I were in search of most commodities related to weaponry … this would be the place to go,” said William C. Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California. “Even if I did not find the weaponry, I would find the individuals who could get me that weaponry.”

Reportedly available are arms and ammunition, including tens of thousands of assault rifles and other small arms and weaponry attractive to terrorists, from the huge Soviet army depository near the northern town of Kolbasna that is guarded by some of the 2,000 Russian soldiers in the enclave as peacekeepers.

Additionally, at least six factories are thought to be churning out grenades and rocket launchers, Makarov pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortar tubes and other relatively low-tech weapons under contract to the Russian military — and possibly skimming off surplus production to sell to arms dealers, diplomats in the region said. Some, such as the Tochlitmash and Elektromash factories in Tiraspol, are thought to be dual-use plants, with civilian and secret military-production lines.

Ruslan Slobodeniuk, whose business card identifies him as Transnistria’s “deputy foreign minister,” said Elektromash, a Soviet-era factory in Tiraspol, makes only transformers.

“We are ready to show our factories to journalists,” he said, but authorities did not respond to a request for a tour of Elektromash.

Story Continues →