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Police in Uzbekistan say they have arrested three men for plotting to sell homemade devices containing mercury and weapons-grade radioactive material for $1 million.
The group was caught in a sting operation while attempting to sell a device containing 1 kilogram of mercury in exchange for an advance payment of $200,000, the Interior Ministry in Samarkand said on February 17.
The detained suspects had previously engaged in the sale of radioactive and poisonous substances, the police said.
This incident is far from an isolated one.
Last year, the State Security Service detained two people in the Navoi region who were trying to sell $500,000 worth of what they purported to be radioactive materials. The pair were detained in front of a restaurant while holding a glass container labeled Radium-226. Although Radium has historically had some military applications, it does not obviously lend itself to use as a weapon.
While the authorities in this latest case have raised the specter that the detainees were seeking to pass of their wares as military-grade substances, mercury is often sold on its own terms. It is never made entirely clear from the statements of security officials where the mercury has been sourced or what intentions the hopeful buyers had in mind. One possibility is that unlicensed, small-scale gold miners seek to use the dangerous material for extracting the precious metal.
Going by official statements, black market prices seem to vary wildly.
In 2019, customs officials in the capital, Tashkent, detained two men trying to sell 15 kilograms of mercury for $100,000. The year after that, a group of people was arrested after trying to sell around 300 grams of mercury to a prospective buyer in Termez, which lies just across the border from Afghanistan, for $30,000. Another gang in Bukhara tried to get $500,000 for their 500 grams of mercury in 2021.
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