The United States signed an agreement October 22 with Uzbekistan to clean up a heavily contaminated Soviet-era biological weapons complex on Vozrozhdeniye Island, located in the Aral Sea on the Uzbek-Kazakh border.
At a cost of up to $6 million, the project aims to dismantle about 20 buildings and decontaminate biological weapons laboratories and 11 anthrax burial pits located on the island, according to a Defense Department official. It will also allow the United States to assist Uzbekistan with enhancing the security of pathogens at Uzbek biological research centers.
The official said that preparatory work on the island has already begun. Full-scale work is expected to start in the first quarter of 2002 and take approximately two years to complete.
The Soviet Union used the island as a major biological weapons development and testing site beginning in the 1950s and continued to use the site past 1972, when it signed the Biological Weapons Convention, which outlaws such development. Moscow apparently opted to conduct this work on the island because of its remoteness and harsh climate, which helped minimize the possibility of a disease outbreak caused by the site’s activities.
Satellite and declassified spy-plane images of the island show an extensive scientific complex of more than a dozen buildings and numerous residential and support structures. Ken Alibek, deputy chief of the Soviet Union’s biological weapons agency from 1988 to 1992, when he defected to the United States, has said that as many as 150 scientists, technicians, and soldiers worked at the complex at any given time. Alibek has described a wide variety of biological agent tests conducted on animals on the island, allegations supported by imagery showing an open-air test site.
The United States has been concerned for some time about residual agents or toxins on the island, including anthrax. Four years before it abandoned Vozrozhdeniye in 1992, Moscow mixed substantial amounts of weapons-grade anthrax with bleach and buried the resulting slurry in pits. However, samples taken by Defense Department scientists on fact-finding missions in the late 1990s found live anthrax, the Defense official said.
The clean-up project has gained urgency because a land bridge has recently formed between the island and the shore, providing a potential conduit for animals contaminated with biological agents or terrorists intent on stealing such materials. Experts have long warned that the bridge’s formation was imminent, and satellite imagery released by NASA shows that the narrow water channel that had separated the island from the mainland had disappeared by this June. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher acknowledged that fact in an October 23 briefing and indicated that the project has been given greater priority as a result of the island’s increased vulnerability.
The agreement, signed in Tashkent by Defense Department threat reduction adviser Andy Weber and a Uzbek official, falls under the legal umbrella of a broader bilateral Cooperative Threat Reduction accord signed earlier this summer. (See ACT, July/August 2001.) The latest agreement took effect upon signature and will remain in force until June 2008.