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Turkish uranium suspects released

Police displayed the uranium Saturday.
Police displayed the uranium Saturday.

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ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- Turkish authorities Sunday released two men accused of attempting to smuggle a quantity of uranium, saying the amount in their possession was only a fraction of what officials originally estimated.

Turkish officials announced Saturday they had seized a box filled with nearly 35 pounds (15 kilograms) of uranium. But Muzaffer Dilek, the mayor of Sanliurfa, a Turkish city near the Turkey-Syria border, said Sunday that the material amounted to only 140 grams -- about five ounces.

The two men arrested with the material were released due to lack of evidence and have since disappeared, Dilek said.

The material is being taken to a nuclear research facility in Ankara to determine its composition, Turkey's Ministry of Internal Affairs said. That analysis was expected to be complete by Monday.

The men, who were riding in a taxi with the box, were stopped en route from Sanliurfa to the nearby city of Gazi Antep in southeastern Turkey, police said. The driver of the taxi 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 Sanliurfa.

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.

U.S. officials and technical experts are in touch with Turkish authorities about the incident.

"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."

Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright suggested the men could have been trying to swindle potential buyers. But he said investigators should try to determine both the source and the intended purchaser.

The U.S. 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."

-- CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King and Producer Fatih Turkmenoglu contributed to this report

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