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Turkish officials: Uranium seized

From John King and Fatih Turkmenoglu (CNN)

The uranium is displayed by police in Sanliurfa, southeastern Turkey, Saturday.
The uranium is displayed by police in Sanliurfa, southeastern Turkey, Saturday.

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ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- Turkish officials said Saturday they have seized 34.6 pounds of uranium and arrested two Turkish men in Urfa, a town in southeastern Turkey. U.S. officials are in touch with authorities to get information about the seizure.

The men were arrested carrying the material in a box as passengers in a taxi that was en route from Urfa to the nearby city of Gazi Antep, police said. They were identified as Salih Yasar and Mehmet Demir. The driver was interviewed and released.

Authorities displayed the material, which they said was worth $5 million and originated in the former Soviet Union, to reporters in Urfa. It will be taken to Ankara for analysis, police said.

Turkish officials said they did not know whether the uranium was refined weapons-grade material or naturally occurring uranium, which would have to be refined before it could be used in a weapon. However, they said they did not believe the material posed a radiation danger.

The seizure was made close to the border with Syria.

The contact between the United States and Turkey includes diplomatic conversations but also discussions involving technical experts, who want to verify whether the substance seized is in fact uranium, and if it is, whether it is weapons-grade.

"If this is real, it is frightening," said a U.S. official familiar with the discussions. "But it is best now that we all look at this with a fair amount of skepticism until we know what it is that they have."

The official said if the material turns out to be weapons-grade uranium, "then it is by far the biggest confirmation of our fears about loose nuclear material and smuggling. But that is a big if."

The official said such material "isn't exactly easy to come by" and added: "There are a lot of unscrupulous people out there who claim to be selling fissile material and weapons-grade material who turn out to be frauds. That is why until we know more I would be more skeptical than anything else. But we are hurrying to learn as much as we can."

The Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs said the analysis of the uranium should be complete Monday.

The atomic bomb used on Hiroshima in 1945 contained about 55 pounds of weapons-grade uranium.

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