No ‘dirty bomb’ plot, South Africa says
An “industrial nuclear device” seized in a dramatic Pretoria police bust last month was radioactive cesium destined for a mining company in the Congo, not a terrorist group, a South African police official told SpyTalk on Thursday.
An extensive undercover investigation by South Africa’s elite “Hawks” police unit, assisted by Interpol, had culminated in a July 9 shootout at a gas station and the arrest of five men said to be part of a criminal gang that had spent months trying to sell stolen cesium worth $6 million to $7 million.
In part because police said they were desperately searching for a much larger cache of the highly toxic material, the arrests sparked worldwide headlines about a possible terrorist plot to obtain the cesium for a “dirty bomb” -- a mix of radioactive material and common explosives.
But Hawks spokesman Musa Zondi said in an interview Thursday that police had concluded that the bulk of the cesium had been intended for “a mining company in the Congo” and “had reached its destination.” He refused to identify the company “because the matter is in court.”
“There is absolutely no terrorist angle to this,” he said by telephone from South Africa.
The origin of the stolen cesium, however, remains unknown, Zondi said.
“I don’t know [where it came from]," he said. “That’s why it’s in court, to answer that question.”
Cesium-137, a silvery metal that is liquid at room temperature, has many commercial uses, including as a material to lubricate oil well drills.
The five men, who were released on bail, are due back in court in September, Zondi said.
One of the suspects, Andre Le-Sar, 37, “previously worked at the YSCOR arms factory in Van Der Bijl Park," an industrial zone south of Johannesburg, according to a South African investigator who insisted on anonymity, “but was unemployed at a stage and is now a self-employed plumber.”
No details could be learned about the four others being held, beyond their ages and residences of record.
| August 19, 2010; 1:53 PM ET
Categories: Homeland Security, Intelligence, Lawandcourts
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