Europe's weapons haven

Sunday, January 11, 2004

TIRASPOL, Moldova -- The deal involved Europe's biggest Soviet army weapons cache, Russia's prime minister and the leader of a separatist enclave called a gunrunner's haven.

As described in a confidential 1998 agreement obtained by The Associated Press, Russia and Trans-Dniester would share profits from the sale of "unnecessary" arms and ammunition chosen from 40,000 tons of material stored in an arms depot in the breakaway region.

The transaction is only one piece of an arms-dealing puzzle in Trans-Dniester, where the decade-old depot also contained hundreds of portable surface-to-air missiles until last month -- when concerns they could end up in terrorists' hands prompted Russia to announce it had withdrawn them.

A former Moldovan official says the Rhode Island-sized region even was the repository of rocket-mounted "dirty bombs," or warheads designed to scatter deadly radioactive material that have gone missing.

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

But an AP investigation involving interviews with a dozen officials and experts strengthened suspicions that Trans-Dniester is a hotbed of legal and illegal weapons transactions that are largely unregulated.

Moldova's western neighbor, Romania, shares that view. Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told AP that Trans-Dniester is a "black hole of trans-border organized crime, including drug smuggling, human trafficking and arms smuggling."

Weapons from Trans-Dniester have turned up in Russia's restive Chechnya republic, in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region and in the hands of insurgents in Africa, a government minister of another country in the region told AP. The official spoke on condition he not be more closely identified.

Weapons of choice

Experts say that just about every sort of weapon is available.

"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."

Reputed gunrunning sources include 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 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 believed to be churning out grenade 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 arms dealers, diplomats in the region told AP. Some, like Tiraspol's Tochlitmash and Elektromash, are believed to be dual use plants, with civilian and secret military production lines.

Ruslan Slobodeniuk, whose business card identifies him as Trans-Dniester's "deputy foreign minister," said Elektromash -- a Soviet-era factory in Tiraspol spouting smoke and steam from all corners into the winter skies -- makes only transformers.

The 1998 arms deal between Russia and Trans-Dniester involved the Soviet army repository -- 40,000 tons of ordnance, arms and ammunition dumped in this remote speck of southeastern Europe in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union broke up and Moldova became independent.

The negotiators: Then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Igor Smirnov, self-named president of the separatist enclave.

Moscow and Tiraspol, capital of Trans-Dniester, would split profits from the sale of "unnecessary weapons, ammunition, military assets and materials," according to the 1998 agreement that bears their signatures.

There seems to be no public record of the deal, but Russian and Western officials confirmed its existence to AP as part of a one-page memorandum on what to do with Europe's biggest Soviet army weapons cache.

It was superseded a year later by a pact providing for a full withdrawal to Russia of all military equipment.

One Russian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his understanding was that the deal was never enacted. But Western diplomats were skeptical, saying nobody will ever know how much of what was sold, to whom, or at what price in that one-year window -- or the criteria used to determine what was "unnecessary."

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