- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

JOHANNESBURG The Democratic Republic of Congo has emerged as the likeliest target of Iraq's attempts to secure uranium for its nuclear weapons program after Britain gave warning that Saddam Hussein has sought "significant quantities" of the radioactive metal somewhere in Africa, nuclear specialists and intelligence officials said.
The country formerly known as Zaire has been destabilized by four years of civil war and possesses the mine that supplied the raw materials for the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in addition to other deposits of uranium and one of the few nuclear power reactors on the continent.
It is home to a string of brutal and feuding militia groups, at least one of which is believed to have approached Baghdad with an offer to supply minerals.
Besides Congo, four other African countries Niger, Namibia, South Africa and Gabon have exploitable uranium deposits and export almost 10,000 tons of ore a year among them.
South Africa had its own weapons program under the apartheid regime and still has two full-scale nuclear reactors.
Last November, Kenyan authorities arrested five Iraqi men attempting to travel to Congo on fake passports on suspicion of being terrorists.
Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, said that unrest in Congo made it the most likely African country to have been targeted by Iraq.
"Congo has virtually no border or airspace security; there is virtually no control over movement," he said. "If anyone had enough money and determination I think they could get uranium, although the risks of being caught are enormous."
A nuclear weapon requires about 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium, which has to be extracted from low-grade ore and then enhanced in a long and complex production process that Saddam has been trying to develop.
About 40 shiploads of ore were dispatched to the United States from the Shinkolobwe mine in the south of the Congo in 1939, soon after which it was shut down and allowed to flood. But it has continued to attract interest from abroad, including a team of North Korean mining engineers who arrived in 1999 and were thrown out only after pressure from the United States.
The area of the country in which the mine lies is now under the control of Zimbabwean forces, one of several states that have sent troops to aid the Congolese government. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is said to have encouraged North Korean interest in the mine.
Zimbabwe has its own reserves of uranium ore, but a Canadian mining company studying prospects for development halted operations three years ago because of the country's political and economic instability. A second exploratory project in Kariba, in the north of Zimbabwe, was also halted. But the Harare government is still keen to develop the reserves, which would enhance its political leverage abroad.
Congo's research reactor, near the capital, Kinshasa, has lost at least one and probably two nuclear fuel rods in recent years, according to industry sources although the Congolese government denies it. One turned up in Italy in 1998, when police arrested 13 men as they were about to sell it to the Mafia.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has checked the Kinshasa reactor, says it is now "under safeguards."


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