Metal shipment raises frightening questions

  • 2005-08-17
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - The Economy Ministry permitted a suspicious Russian company to export nearly four tons of beryllium, a material used in nuclear reactors and for building nuclear bombs, to Russia on Aug. 11, raising questions about customs controls in Lithuania.

Once it was given permission for export on Aug. 10, the beryllium was immediately loaded onto a private plane at Vilnius International Airport, where it was shipped off the next day.

Although state officials confirmed that the beryllium was exported in compliance with domestic and international law, Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas said the shipment should have stayed within Lithuania's national borders.

He said he doubted whether Lithuania should have allowed the shipment to continue without further checks.

Neither President Valdas Adamkus nor Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas have expressed concern over the event.

But Paulauskas, a former prosecutor who handled a similar scandal in 1992, did not hide his concern. Speaking of the case 13 years ago, he said, "In various different ways 's both good and bad 's attempts to repossess the shipment were made," he was quoted as saying.

"The case was constantly being reopened. I remember 's the Internal Affairs Ministry would close the case, and I would open it again," he said. "The goal was to retain the shipment so it wouldn't fall into unreliable hands, so it wouldn't be used for evil purposes. I believe this beryllium should have been held onto, because the company is shady, and the people representing it as mediators in Lithuania were unclear in their purposes."

"It is obvious that something suspicious is happening here," he added.

Despite the parlimentary chairman's suspicions, security officers claimed that AMI-Science had submitted the proper documents. The agency said it could not find anything suspicious to pick around, adding that the process was too complicated to halt on a basis of past misdeeds.

Still, beryllium, a light, heat-resistant metal, has been causing Lithuanian law enforcers headache for over a decade.

The metal caused international scandal 13 years ago when intelligence officers refused to export the shipment. The beryllium belonged to AMI, a Russian company suspected of producing counterfeit documents and working with dubious intermediaries.

Originally smuggled into Lithuania, the metal 's worth millions of dollars - served as juicy bait for various criminal gangs in the early '90s.

The Respublika daily wrote that Russian and Lithuanian criminals tried to sell the material through mediators to North Korea in 1992. At the time the U.S. media and CNN extensively covered the event, and a year later a criminal case was launched to investigate the matter.

Over the past decade Russians have repeatedly attempted to reclaim the substance using bribes and forged official documents. The last time AMI asked for permission to export the beryllium was in 2003. The firm showed the Economy Ministry documents allegedly confirming that a Mexican company, through mediators in Romania and Moldavia, had purchased the metal.

Later, however, it was revealed that the documents were counterfeit and that no such company existed.

In January, AMI, which has modified its company name to AMI-Science, applied for permission once again. The State Security Department, however, killed the attempt after learning that this was yet another fraudulent scam.

But this time, the Security Department had nothing to find fault with. According to the department's press attache, the documents lead to an existing company in Russia, which was prepared to receive the shipment.

"They straightened out their documents, and there were no longer any reasons to forbid the export. The department was concerned that the beryllium would be handed over to a reliable holder. We consulted our partners abroad," department representatives said.