New York: The President of Georgia confirmed on Wednesday that his country seized a shipment of highly enriched uranium, and blamed Russia for creating the instability that allows nuclear smugglers to operate in the region.
In an interview, President Mikhail Saakashvili declined to divulge details of the seizure but said the uranium was intercepted last month coming into his country in the Caucasus region of southeast Europe.
The Georgian Interior Ministry said authorities had detained a group of foreign nationals and seized a small amount of uranium, which is now in a secure location.
Saakashvili's government no longer controls two breakaway sections of Georgia, separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and the President said the smuggling is evidence of a security black hole in the area.
Such seizures have come "mostly from the direction of Russia”, Saakashvili said.
The two countries have had tense relations for years, with their leaders routinely trading barbs.
During the brief August 2008 war, Russia destroyed much of Georgia's military infrastructure and occupied the two territories. Georgia has protested fiercely, claiming that Russia is trying to annex the regions.
Only Venezuela, Nicaragua and the South Pacific island nation of Nauru have followed Russia's example and recognised both regions as independent states, while the rest of the world considers them part of Georgia.
Russia has since taken steps to establish long-term military bases close to the territories' borders with Georgia proper, and Saakashvili said it has been building up its artillery there, posing a menacing threat to Georgia. In the interview, Saakashvili appealed for more western support, saying western involvement in the region is his country's best defence.
"We are not asking for an American troop presence," he said. "We are asking for an American political, economic and security presence."
South Ossetia's border is a mere 30 miles (48 kilometres) from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.
News of the uranium seizure emerged during last week's nuclear security summit in Washington, which was hosted by President Barack Obama and that Saakashvili attended. It was first reported by Britain's The Guardian newspaper.
Obama has pointed to Russian cooperation as essential to his goal of securing all of the world's nuclear materials within four years. At the summit, Russia and the US signed a deal to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium.
But Saakashvili said on Wednesday that under Russian control, Georgia's two breakaway regions have become havens for nuclear smugglers.
"If you are legally in occupation then you are responsible for controlling proliferation," he said.
He pointed to a 2006 sting stemming from an investigation in South Ossetia as evidence of the smuggling problem in the breakaway republics. In that instance, Georgian authorities arrested four people accused of trying to sell a small quantity of highly enriched uranium.
Saakashvili also said that Russia's military build-up in the breakaway regions are a threat to his country's security, noting that Russia has "not only the ability, but the intention to depose our government”.
First Published: Thursday, April 22, 2010, 10:40