WASHINGTON – A joint sting operation mounted last year by Georgian and U.S. intelligence operatives resulted in the arrest of a Russian citizen trying to sell a small quantity of weapons-grade uranium with promises of access to much more, Georgian officials revealed Thursday.
A U.S. source told FOX News the Georgian-led operation was carried out in February of 2006, with the help of the CIA, FBI and the U.S. Department of Energy. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the roughly four ounces of uranium as relatively pure.
The Russian who tried to sell the uranium to an undercover agent was identified as Oleg Khinsagov, who appeared to have connections to organized crime, but leads to terrorist connections were still being investigated.
Khinsagov, who was arrested in a rundown apartment in the Georgian Capital of Tblisis, believed the undercover agent who was making the buy was an Islamic radical from Turkey.
Georgian officials said attempts to trace the nuclear material and investigate the man's claim that he had access to larger quantities have foundered from a lack of assistance from Russia.
According to the Interfax news agency, a Russian official said the opposite was true. The official was quoted as saying that Georgian authorities had given Russia too small a sample to determine its origin and had refused to provide other information.
Russian ties with Georgia have soured badly. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has sought to decrease Russian influence and move closer to the West, as Tbilisi regularly protests Russian support for the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In Washington, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said he was revealing the story out of frustration with Russia's response and the need to illustrate the dangers of a breakdown in security cooperation in the region.
According to his account, during an investigation in South Ossetia, a Georgian undercover agent made contact with the Russian seller in North Ossetia.
After the Russian offered to sell the sample, the agent rebuffed requests that the sale occur in North Ossetia, insisting he come to Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. At a meeting there, the man pulled a plastic bag containing the material from his pocket.
The man was arrested and sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison on smuggling charges. Three Georgians tried as accomplices were sentenced on lesser charges.
Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of the Moscow-based PIR center, which specializes in nonproliferation, noted that the quantity seized was reported to be small — 250 times less than necessary to make a nuclear weapon.
He also said it was not certain if it came from Russia, as small amounts of nuclear materials had remained in Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"Why was this information released now? It looks like an attempt, by Georgia or the United States, to build up an image of Russia as a nuclear market," Khlopkov said. "Georgia wants to get political capital out of this."
Based on reporting by FOXNews' Catherine Herridge and the Associated Press.