Colombia worried about rebel dirty bomb

March 5, 2008 4:38:01 PM PST
Colombia is worried about documents on the laptop of a slain rebel leader indicating the guerrillas were trying to obtain uranium, but has no evidence they intended to use it as a weapon, the vice president said Wednesday. Francisco Santos told The Associated Press that despite fears he expressed to the world disarmament agency in Geneva on Tuesday, his government doesn't have any indication that the Rev

Santos told the 65-member Conference on Disarmament on Tuesday that his government is alarmed because uranium is "the primary basis for generating dirty weapons of mass destruction and terrorism." A day later, he was backing off slightly.

"What I said was, 'Take note. To put the FARC and the word uranium in the same sentence is to make anyone's hair stand up,"' Santos said in a telephone interview from Brussels, Belgium. "Don't take it lightly."

The FBI, which has an office in Bogota, also has "no information or intelligence regarding the FARC attempting to use WMD," or weapons of mass destruction, spokesman Richard Kolko said in Washington.

The document addressing "the matter of the Uranium" was found in a laptop belonging to Raul Reyes, a top FARC commander killed Saturday in a raid into Ecuador that has generated intense international criticism. The poorly written communication, dated Feb. 16, is addressed to Reyes and signed by Edgar Tovar, who Santos said commands a FARC front near Ecuador.

Tovar writes that a man named Belisario in Bogota who supplies him with explosives "sent me a catalog and the specifications."

"They propose to sell each kilo at US$2.5 million (euro1.65 million) and they'll deliver it and we'll see to whom we can sell it and so the deal would be with a government to sell them a lot," he writes. "They've got 50 kilos ready and they can sell a lot more, they have direct contact with those who have the product."

The uranium reference was quickly cited by Colombia's government as it sought to deflect criticism over the raid.

"When they mention negotiations for 50 kilos of uranium, this means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become a global aggressor. We're not talking of domestic guerrilla but transnational terrorism," Gen. Oscar Naranjo said at an explosive news conference.

Santos took Colombia's complaints Wednesday to Javier Solano, the European Union's foreign affairs representative.

"The Europeans are really worried about this. They're not taking it lightly," he told the AP after meeting with Solano.

But Colombian officials say they have no other information - either from the laptop or other sources - indicating an interest in radioactive materials or unconventional weapons by the FARC, which has been fighting successive Colombian governments for more than four decades using conventional weapons.

It wasn't clear what exactly the material Tovar was writing about might be. Santos said "this sounds like processed uranium."

The price mentioned suggests that the uranium would be processed, and hence dangerous. Unprocessed uranium is relatively harmless and goes for about US$100 (euro66) a kilo, according to Charles Ferguson, a physicist with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"If it were weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium, I'd be freaking out because you can make a low-yield improvised nuclear device from that," Ferguson said. But he added: "I'm not aware of any highly enriched uranium of appreciable quantities in the region of Colombia, Venezuela or anywhere else near there."


Associated Press writer Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this story from Washington.