Russia’s foreign minister denounced on Friday the detention of a Russian man accused of trying to sell highly enriched uranium to Georgian agents, calling it a ”provocation.”
A government scientist, meanwhile, confirmed that a sample of the uranium sent to Russia was weapons-grade, but said the sample was too small to determine its origin, news agencies reported.
Igor Shkabura, deputy director of the Bochvar Inorganic Materials Institute, said the uranium sent by Georgia ”could be used for military productions, including nuclear weapons,” according to ITAR-Tass.
It was the first public comment by a named Russian official to claims by Georgia that it arrested and jailed a Russian man last year for trying to sell weapons-grade uranium to an agent posing as a rich foreign buyer.
The reports that emerged Wednesday, confirmed by United States officials, renewed concern about security at Russia’s array of nuclear facilities. They also aggravated already high tensions between Russia and Georgia, which have been at odds for years over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two renegade regions of Georgia seeking either independence or absorption into Russia.
Georgian officials say their agent made contact with the man selling contraband uranium in South Ossetia, which is widely seen as a regional epicenter for smuggling.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement late Thursday saying the uranium sting highlighted the need for international observer missions in both regions, a proposal that Georgia has been pushing in recent months. Russia has peacekeepers in both regions, which have been under the control of unrecognized separatist governments since fighting ended in the mid-1990s.
The ministry statement said, ”Georgia is far from politicizing these questions.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said that he could see no reason for the detention of the man accused of smuggling the uranium.
”On the basis of the facts that I have at my disposal, I can say that this was a provocation,” he said, according to Interfax and RIA-Novosti.