US frustrates Swiss nuclear probe

The Libyan nuclear programme has been under close surveillance by the IAEA Keystone

A Swiss investigation into an international nuclear smuggling network is being hampered by a lack of cooperation from the United States.

This content was published on May 29, 2006

Authorities in Bern say they asked US officials for judicial assistance a year ago but have yet to receive a reply.

Washington's failure to respond to "multiple" Swiss appeals was revealed last week by former United Nations weapons inspector David Albright.

He told a US hearing into the nuclear trafficking ring run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atom bomb, that he found the lack of cooperation by the US "frankly embarrassing".

"It is difficult to understand the actions of the US government. Its lack of assistance needlessly complicates this important investigation," said Albright, who is president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

The Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office said it still expected a response to its requests for assistance.

"We are confident we will get an answer because it is in the best interests not only of Switzerland but also the United States that the criminal investigation led by the Swiss authorities in this difficult matter of nuclear proliferation can be carried out successfully," spokesman Hansjürg Mark Wiedmer told swissinfo.

The Swiss authorities have arrested three men from the same family – Friedrich, Urs and Marco Tinner – on suspicion of helping to supply gas centrifuge parts for use in Libya's nuclear weapons programme between 2001 and 2003. Gas centrifuges are a vital element in the production of weapons-grade material.

Urs Tinner is said to have supervised the production of more than 2,000 centrifuge parts in Malaysia. A German-registered freighter carrying components from Malaysia to Libya was intercepted in autumn 2003.

Libyan connection

Swiss authorities are investigating whether the men broke Swiss legislation on war materials by knowingly contributing to the production of nuclear weapons.

According to federal prosecutors, two of them remain in custody, while a third was released earlier this year. Wiedmer said the investigation was still in its initial phase and they had not been formally charged.

Albright told a US House of Representatives committee that the Libyan authorities had "greatly assisted" Switzerland in its legal requests, allowing a visit to Tripoli to interview witnesses last month.

He added that law enforcement agencies in the Far East and in South Africa had also cooperated with Swiss prosecutors.

"The United States should respond to the Swiss requests for assistance as quickly as possible," said Albright. "To continue to ignore these requests... risks undercutting support for Swiss cooperation in non-proliferation matters."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which in 2004 handed over a list of Swiss-based firms and individuals allegedly involved in the trafficking ring, declined to comment on the legal stalemate.

The US Department of Justice was not open to enquiries on Monday.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

In 2004 the IAEA supplied the Swiss authorities with a list of two companies and 15 individuals suspected of dealing in nuclear material with Iran and Libya.

Swiss engineer Urs Tinner, who is suspected of helping Libya obtain nuclear weapons technology, was arrested in Germany in October 2004. He was extradited to Switzerland last year.

His father Friedrich and brother Marco were also arrested by the Swiss authorities on suspicion of breaking the law on war materials by illegally exporting nuclear bomb-making equipment to Libya.

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