- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

ARLIT, Niger — There was nothing to see for 2 hours as the tiny six-seater flew across the southern Sahara — just an unbroken expanse of flat desert and the occasional sandstorm.

Then it came into view: a vast complex of neatly carved quarries, trucks bumping around in clouds of gray dust, and flat-topped sandstone slag heaps. It was the uranium mines of Arlit, 500 miles from Niger’s capital, Niamey.

For nearly 40 years, these remote mines have quietly produced uranium, bringing two new towns, jobs, hard currency and hope to the world’s second-poorest country. Yet the mines are also at the center of an international dispute over the justification for war in Iraq, and an unprecedented rift between Britain and the United States.

It was to Niger and its mines that Saddam Hussein sought uranium to develop nuclear weapons in the 1990s, according to claims made by U.S. and British intelligence agencies.

Those assertions were challenged last month by Joseph C. Wilson, a retired U.S. diplomat who visited Niger last year at the request of the CIA.

Writing recently in the New York Times, Mr. Wilson said he spent eight days there “drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people; current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country’s uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”

The White House acknowledged that its contentions were based on forged documents, but Britain insisted that it had additional information from independent sources to support the assertions.

The British claims provoked surprise, disbelief and denials from senior executives and workers with whom we spoke at the two mines: Somair, run by Niger and France, and Cominak, a joint venture among Niger, France, Spain and Japan. Most of the 1,500 workers — almost all of whom are from Niger — are convinced British Prime Minister Tony Blair is lying.

“We were amused and a bit puzzled when we first heard about this,” said Bernard Debacque, the production director at Somair. “We wondered what it was all about. It is impossible for anything to go missing from here. Everything is strictly controlled.”

Explosives and mechanical diggers are used to extract the matte-black uranium ore from open-cast and underground mines. The ore is taken to nearby factories, where it is ground into small pieces, treated with sulphuric acid, filtered and turned first into a solid yellow substance and then into a fine yellow powder. The yellowcake, as it is called, then is packed into hermetically sealed metal drums for export.

The drums bear the name of the mine and the date. Each drum is also given a number. “That way, if any were to go missing it would be obvious,” said Mr. Debacque.

The drums from Somair, which weigh up to 280 pounds each, are taken by road in a convoy of trucks to Parakou in Benin. There, they are loaded onto trains and taken 250 miles to Cotonou, from where they are shipped to France. The cargo is guarded by police all along the route, and the papers are checked at least five times.

Serge Martinez, Somair’s director general, dismissed suggestions that uranium could be stolen or lost en route as “the stuff of science fiction.” He said: “Yellowcake is very heavy. You cannot just pick up a drum and take it away, and you need a lot to do anything useful with it.”

Mr. Martinez said that in the 40 years since extraction began at Arlit, there had been not a single case of uranium being lost or stolen. Nor could he see how uranium could be sold illegally to Iraq, because all movement of uranium is monitored closely by the companies and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“It is checked again and again — in Niger, in Benin and in France. If any were to go missing, it would be known very quickly. We are not talking about moving consignments of peanuts.”

Other significant obstacles would confront a dictator such as Saddam trying to get his hands on uranium from Niger. The yellowcake exported from the West African country is 75 percent uranium, but the metal is not enriched and would need to undergo expensive, high-technology processing before it could be used to make a nuclear bomb. There is no evidence that Saddam had such technology.

Each 1,000 tons of uranium ore yield roughly 9 to 13 pounds of yellowcake for export. Saddam would need hundreds of tons of yellowcake to supply enough uranium to make nuclear weapons, making any illegal movement of such a sizable consignment even more conspicuous.

Andre Bosse, head of the factory at Somair, said that it might have been possible for Niger to sell uranium to Saddam before 1985, but since then all production of yellowcake has been controlled by the French, and it was “simply impossible” for it to happen without their knowledge.

Executives at the other company, Cominak, agreed that the Niger government had no possibility of selling uranium to Saddam or anybody else because of French control.

A group of mine workers said they felt that Britain and the United States had used Niger in their efforts to win public backing for a war because they knew it was a poor, weak country that could not fight back.

“France controls the uranium here, but Britain and America would never dare suggest that France had given uranium to Saddam because that would cause a war,” said one engineer.

Others spoke of their disappointment and surprise that Britain, a country well-respected in this former French colony, had become involved in “America’s lies.” “They are lying together,” said Mahaman Kadri, an environmental officer at the open-cast mine.

Added a colleague: “We expect that from America, but we would have thought that Britain, with its history and its knowledge of African countries, would have known better. This affair has done a lot of damage to Britain’s image.” Mr. Blair, the mine workers suggested, cannot have his yellowcake and eat it.

In the capital, Niamey, it had been hard to find anybody who gave the British claims about a Niger-Iraq connection any credence. Most dismissed the assertions as a crude attempt by the intelligence services to justify the war, and said the people of Niger are more concerned with feeding themselves than paying attention to superpower politics.

Hama Hamadou, the prime minister, called on Mr. Blair to produce the evidence he claimed to have. “Our conscience is clear. We are innocent. We have never sold uranium to Iraq,” he said. “We have never discussed uranium with Iraq.”

Rabiou Hassane Yari, Iraq’s minister of mines and energy, said the government had received no official complaint from Britain. “It’s a dishonest accusation,” he said. “In some ways, it has helped put Niger on the map, but it’s sad and bizarre that we are caught in the middle of this.

“The Americans have apologized for what they did. It would be nice if Britain could do the same.”

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