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Nuclear nightmare: US holds mysterious Israeli in global hunt for renegade bomb salesmen.

THE WORLDWIDE AMERICAN INVESTIGATION into the nuclear black market run by the renegade godfather of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is grinding to a halt because the governments of various countries implicated in the clandestine trade are refusing to cooperate. The United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has been struggling to piece together the network that was behind the world's most dangerous case of nuclear proliferation since Khans operation was exposed in December 2003 when Libya, one of his customers, came clean on its nuclear arms programme. Iran also acquired nuclear material from Khans network and is currently in confrontation with the United States over its allegedly clandestine drive to obtain nuclear weapons.

However, the Americans may be sitting on someone who federal authorities believe is a veteran operator in the clandestine network of nuclear smugglers--a 50-year-old Orthodox Israeli named Asher Karni, who allegedly has links to a Pakistani businessman, Humayun Khan, (no relation to A.Q. Khan). In a bizarre twist to an already Byzantine affair, in the 1970s Humayun Khan was a purchasing agent for a German industrialist and former Nazi, Alfred Hempel, who was widely involved in the nuclear black market even then.

Gary Mulhollin, founder of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project of Nuclear Arms Control, says that Hempel was in the smuggling business long before A.Q. Khan and supplied material to countries in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa before he died in 1989.

Karni has not been directly linked to A.Q. Khan's activities, but his case offers a snapshot on how such people operate and that while Khan's network may have been pre-eminent in its field, it was not the only one engaged in the murky business of nuclear smuggling.

The Hungarian-born Karni was arrested at Denver International Airport in Colorado on 2 January 2004 when he and his wife and daughter flew in from South Africa for a New Year's skiing vacation. Karni, who served in the Israeli army's artillery corps for 14 years and retired as a major in 1985, lived in Cape Town where he owns a company called Top-Cape Technology.

He was charged in federal court in Washington DC under the Export Administration Act with supplying Pakistan with US-manufactured high-speed electrical switches known as triggered spark gaps, the size of a soft-drink can and shaped like a spool of thread. In small numbers, they are used by hospitals in machines called lithotripters to break up kidney stones. In large numbers they can detonate nuclear weapons.

But Karni is only one of a handful of people who have been arrested in the global dragnet for A.Q. Khan's network, which western authorities fear could have had dealings with others not yet identified. Those behind bars were seized in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and South Africa.

Investigators believe that many others remain at large in the United Arab Emirates, a vital hub in Khan's operation, Britain, France, Spain and Malaysia. Pakistan refuses to permit investigators to interrogate Khan, still considered a hero by his countrymen and who was pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf. Presumably because the Bush administration needs to keep Musharraf onside for the war against terrorism, Washington has been strangely quiescent about being barred access to Khan.

Malaysia has been holding one of Khan's key partners, Sri Lankan businessman Buhary Syed abu Tahir, since 28 May 2004 under the country's Internal Security Act, but officials say that means access to him is restricted. In June 2004, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were blocked from seeing Tahir, the highest-ranking partner in Khan's network to be apprehended and whose arrest had been seen as a possible breakthrough in the global investigation. Tahir, who was once based in Dubai and is connected to one of Malaysia's most prominent families by marriage, handled the sale of centrifuges, used to enrich uranium to weapons grade, manufactured at a plant in Malaysia.

The discovery near Johannesburg on 1 September 2004 of a complete two-storey enrichment plant, manufactured by Khan's people and crated up for delivery to Libya, exposed a hitherto unknown arm of the disgraced Pakistani's global smuggling network and shifted the spotlight to South Africa. Several people linked to that operation were arrested in South Africa, but the charges against several of them were later inexplicably dropped.

According to US prosecutors, Karni ordered 200 of the GP-20B models, at $447 each, for Humayun Khan, enough to detonate up to 10 nuclear bombs. The size of the order was the giveaway. A spokesman for PerkinElmer Optoelectronics of Salem, Massachusetts, with whom the order was placed, said the authorities were alerted because "it was such a huge quantity. A hospital buys one or two". Specialists say that even the largest hospital would only have five or six of the devices.

US court documents allege that in the summer of 2003 Karni used a chain of front companies and misleading shipping documents to buy the devices and ship a first batch of 66 to Pakistan via South Africa and then the UAE. US investigators, tipped off by PerkinElmer and an anonymous source in South Africa, had the triggers disabled and sent the shipment on its way. The first leg took the triggers to Top-Cape where they were delivered on 8 October 2003, falsely listed as electrical equipment for a hospital in Soweto. In Cape Town, the triggers were repackaged and on 19 October re-exported as air cargo to Pakistan via Dubai.

On that leg, the shipment was marked "scientific equipment" and addressed to "AJKMC Lithography Aid Society"--of which there is no record in Pakistan--and was eventually tracked to the Islamabad office of Humayun Khan's company, Pakland PME, established in 1994. Khan had no explanation why the triggers ended up with him, but US prosecutors suspect that AJKMC stands for All-Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, the political party that controls the Pakistani-ruled sector of disputed Kashmir. Federal prosecutor lay Bratt said in federal court in Washington DC on 20 January 2004 that the group is "an organisation that has ties to militant Islamic groups".

Khan acknowledged dealings with Karni, including the purchase of infra-red sensors for missiles carried by F-16 strike jets, but denied any involvement in the triggers shipment. Khan is a well-known supplier of electronic equipment to the Pakistani army and the Karni case indicates that Pakistan remains involved in the clan destine acquisition of nuclear-related material at a time when it is at the centre of a massive international investigation of smuggling nuclear technology to rogue states.

Alarm at the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology has been heightened by allegations that Iran has accelerated efforts to develop nuclear arms. There are also suspicions that North Korea has not one but several nuclear bombs, and that Brazil, recently authorised by the IAEA to produce enriched uranium, will go down that route as well, given its ambition to become Latin America's dominant power and its history of secretly trying to develop such weapons.

Underlining the extent of the clandestine market for tightly controlled high-tech equipment are court documents in the Karni case that the triggered spark gaps were probably only a minute part of illegal export operations in when he participated. These documents include email exchanges in 2002 with an Indian businessman, Raghavendra "Ragu" Rao of Foretek Marketing (Pvt) Ltd, who was trying to secretly buy material for two missile laboratories run by India's space programme. Such equipment is severely restricted by US export laws.

For the moment, Karni is in Maryland awaiting trial in Washington DC, and faces a 10-year sentence. He is out on $75,000 bail after agreeing to waive his immunity from extradition--from Israel or South Africa--and to be electronically monitored. Further revelations of the nuclear smuggling trade can be expected to emerge from the trial.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Comment:Nuclear nightmare: US holds mysterious Israeli in global hunt for renegade bomb salesmen.(Current Affairs)
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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