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Nuclear smuggling suspect claims CIA link

GENEVA – A Swiss man suspected of involvement in the world’s biggest nuclear smuggling ring claims he supplied the CIA with inside information that led to the breakup of the black market network led by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

In a documentary scheduled to air Thursday evening on Swiss TV station SF1, Urs Tinner says he informed US intelligence about a delivery of centrifuge parts to build nuclear weapons in Libya.

The shipment was seized at the Italian port of Taranto in 2003, forcing Libya to admit and eventually renounce its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

The 43-year-old Tinner is suspected, along with his brother Marco and father, Friedrich, of supplying Khan’s secret network with technical information and equipment that was used to make gas centrifuges. Khan, creator of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, sold the devices to countries for secret nuclear weapons programs, including Libya and Iran, before his operation was stopped in 2003.

Tinner was freed by Swiss authorities in December after almost five years in investigative detention and was not charged.

Tinner’s account is similar to that in the book "The Nuclear Jihadist", by US investigative reporters Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins.

Frantz says that based on interviews with sources in the US intelligence community, Urs Tinner was recruited by the CIA as early as 2000.

A CIA spokesman, George Little, refused to discuss the Tinner case Wednesday. The agency said in the past that "the disruption of the AQ Khan network was a genuine intelligence success, one in which the CIA played a key role".

In the Swiss documentary Tinner also claims he damaged equipment sent to uranium enrichment facilities so that it would malfunction. He does not say which country the sabotaged parts were sent to.

A parliamentary panel is due to publish a report Thursday into the Swiss government’s decision to destroy thousands of files of evidence in the case in 2007.

Former Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher told the SF documentary that he traveled to Washington in 2007 to discuss the case with Alberto Gonzales, who was then US Attorney General.

Blocher says he refused a US request to transfer the files, but the Swiss Cabinet later shredded them after it learned they contained information that could endanger national security, including nuclear warhead designs.

The Swiss government also refused to allow federal prosecutors to investigate whether the Tinners spied for a foreign state, a punishable offense for citizens in the neutral country.

Urs Tinner is currently waiting to see whether prosecutors will file charges against him for breaking Swiss laws on the export of sensitive material, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.

His brother remains in prison awaiting the prosecutors’ decision. Swiss weekly NZZ am Sonntag reported that prosecutors objected to Marco’s proposed release in December because of concerns he may still possess sensitive information on the construction of nuclear bombs.

Jeanette Balmer, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor’s office in Bern, refused to comment on the newspaper report.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said its investigation into the Khan network, which operated in 30 countries, showed some members possessed highly sensitive information.

"Sensitive information provided by the clandestine supply network to Libya, some of which related to uranium centrifuge enrichment and — even more worrisome — nuclear weapon design, existed in electronic form, making it easy to disseminate", IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei told a meeting in September.

He added that the agency was concerned some of the documentation may still be available.

[AP / Frank Jordans / Balz Bruppacher / Expatica]