MOSCOW – From St. Petersburg in the north to the steppes of Kazakstan, from small towns near Moscow to the Ural Mountains and a barren island in the Aral Sea — the old Soviet Union produced hundreds of tons of anthrax at its sprawling biological weapons facilities.
U.S. officials suspect that some scientists of the former Soviet Union who worked on lethal germs have or may be helping rogue regimes develop biological weapons.
Back in 1972 Moscow joined the Biological Weapons Convention banning germ warfare. Officials later admitted the country violated the treaty for 20 years, until then-President Boris Yeltsin signed an April 1992 decree promising to comply with the convention.
Some research has clandestinely continued in later years under the guise of defensive programs, says Ken Alibek, who defected to the United States in 1992 after serving as deputy head of the huge Biopreparat venture linked to germ warfare.
The Soviet and then Russian biological warfare program was so vast that it employed up to 70,000 people by the time of its official termination. Among their achievements was developing anthrax said to be resistant to antibiotics.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in an interview Monday on CNN's ``Larry King Live,'' said Russia was out of the biological weapons business.
``I would like to refer to today's statement by Russian officials, the minister of public health and another official in charge of chemical weapons, it's very important what they both said, that there are no programs for the development of biological weapons in Russia, there is only research for medical purposes,'' Gorbachev said.
The country Gorbachev was running when it collapsed had facilities in Sergiev Posad and Obolensk near Moscow, the Institute for Extra-Pure Biological Preparations in St. Petersburg, in Kirov in central Russia, in Yekaterinburg in the Urals, in Aralsk and Stepnogorsk in Kazakstan and a test site on an Aral Sea island with the deceptive name of Vozrozhdeniye (Resurrection), according to Russian officials.
Attention now is focusing on Kazakstan, where a U.S. military team helping to decommission a former Soviet biological weapons factory in Stepnogorsk found anthrax spores in a pipe last week, U.S. Defense and State Department officials said.
That plant was built starting in 1982 to replace another Soviet factory in Yekaterinburg that accidentally released anthrax into the air in 1979, killing about 70 people. Yeltsin, then the local Communist Party boss in the city that was known as Sverdlovsk, has said he did not know about the germ warfare facility at the time, pointing to a KGB cover-up.
Kazakstan on Monday angrily denied any connection between ``American citizens' infection with anthrax and the possibility of the anthrax breed from Kazakstan falling into the hands of extremists'' and said it was meeting its commitments to prevent the spread weapons of mass destruction.
But back in 1999, according to The New York Times, U.S. scientists found live anthrax spores on the Vozrozhdeniye island, described as ``the world's largest anthrax burial ground.'' Shared by Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, the island is becoming even more dangerous as the Aral Sea dries up.
The anthrax could have come from any of the nations that run suspected germ warfare programs — Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria among others. Russia has been cited as one potential source of some of their supplies.
A U.S. intelligence report written in 1994 said Russia might have supplied biological warfare technology to North Korea and Iraq, suspected of having stockpiled thousands of gallons of anthrax.
Media reports also have said Russia was in negotiations on a multimillion dollar deal to sell Iraq a huge fermentation tank that could be used to brew deadly germs. The Iraqi negotiators reportedly came from Al Hakam, a site where Iraq has admitted producing anthrax and botulinum toxin.
Russia has strongly denied the accounts, saying most of the equipment for developing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program originated in Western Europe.
Other reports have said that Iran has recruited former Soviet germ warfare scientists and at least some were asked to work on a biological weapons program.
Concerned, the United States has provided $20 million since 1994 to keep former Soviet germ warfare experts busy. Last year, the U.S. administration proposed spending $220 million more to redirect the work of former germ warfare institutes, some of which remain shrouded in secrecy.
Together with the European Union and Japan, the United States also promised last year to provide $1.61 million to improve security and accounting at the world's leading anthrax research lab, Russia's State Research Center for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, 50 miles southwest of Moscow.
According to U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who visited the complex in 1998, it stores hundreds and perhaps thousands of deadly pathogens.
Moscow has also developed its own anti-anthrax treatment, which Veniamin Cherkassky, a leading anthrax expert, says is completely different from the one used in the United States. Russia's Health Ministry spokeswoman Lyubov Voropayeva said Monday that Russia was ready to share it with the United States ``if the necessity arises.''
But U.S. scientists say at least one genetically altered strain of anthrax, developed at the Obolensk facility in 1997, is resistant to the Russian vaccine and might defeat the one employed in the United States as well.