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Ukrainian nukes go AWOL

'Strange things happen,' says defence minister

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Hundreds of missiles have gone AWOL from the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, defence minister Yevhen Marchuk has admitted.

The missiles - which were supposed to have been decommissioned following Ukraine's independence in 1991 - are apparently unaccounted for, due to "accounting problems".

Marchuk said: "We are currently looking for several hundred missiles. They were decommissioned, but we can't find them. Each of the missiles contained gold, silver, platinum. But where are the results of their recycling?"

Where indeed?

The BBC report into the matter studiously avoids using the word "nuclear" in relation to "missile", although it seems pretty certain that these are ICBMs we're talking about here.

Ukraine maintains that it no longer has any nuclear weapons on its soil. A recent statement to Pravda insists "in order to meet the requirements of a bilateral agreement with Russia dating from April 1992, whereby Ukraine had to transfer its nuclear weapons to Russia for destruction, all Ukraine's strategical nuclear weapons were removed to the Russian Federation by June 1996. Therefore Ukraine met all the obligations on nuclear weapons which it had inherited from the Soviet Union on time."

Which is all well and good, except this particular disclaimer came in response to a charge that "in 1998 Ukrainian scientists sold al-Qaeda representatives a compact supply of nuclear weapons, which could have been fitted into a small suitcase".

Furthermore, a former Soviet intelligence officer was recently caught trying to smuggle a 400g of uranium from Ukraine into Hungary. When detained in his minibus, the man claimed he had been paid to transport the material, which was "for use by a dentist".

So, while Hungarian dentists look for a new source of fuel for their independent nuclear deterrent, Mr Marchuk has the unenviable task of trying to work out how hundreds of missiles disappeared off the face of the planet. "Unfortunately, strange things happen," he notes.

Given that the former Soviet nuclear arsenal consists of an estimated 7-800 tons of weapons-grade uranium, 150-200 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and around 16,000 stored nuclear weapons, the world can happily live without further strangeness of this kind. ®

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