Dozens of nuclear warheads were manufactured by the Transnistrian separatist regime during the 1992 five months war. Transnistria is a breakaway state of Republic of Moldova with no international recognition and a self-declared state. The warheads were not used and yet there is no clue of their whereabouts. Rumours indicated some of them are buried in a limestone abandoned mine. The area is well-known for its high rate of cancer.
The Soviet Union started its disintegration in March 1990 upon Lithuania proclaimed its independence soon to be followed by other former soviet states. The Soviet Army tried to repress the independence movement by killing hundreds of Lithuanians. Only in 1991 the country became independent yet in other Soviet regions with majority of Russian population people were not in favour of leaving the union. In September 1990 part of a that time Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia located on the left bank of the river Dniester self-declared as autonomous region under the name of Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika - or Transnistria. In the small separatist state with an area of almost 4.000 square km live around 500.000 people.
Only in August 1991 the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia became independent under the name of Republic of Moldavia and the tensions between the newly formed country and the breakaway state reached the peak in March 1992 when the war broke out. During the five months conflict 1,300 people were killed and 1,500 wounded. Transnistria has a key role in the region, depends exclusively on the Russian Federation and is considered the nucleus of smuggling weapons included. Moreover, the small self-declared state holds the former Soviet Moldavia’s KGB archives in the capital city of Tiraspol. It is commonly known that during the 1992 war the separatists attacked the Moldavian army even with Alazani anti-hail rockets. To improve the chances for wining the war the separatists allegedly modified the anti-hail rockets by adding a radioactive materials.
Very few people were awarded of this activity. Two former employees of the Republic of Moldavia’s Ministry of National Security – in present Security and Intelligence Service or SIS, were in charge to investigate the case. Ion Leahu is one of the two. The SIS Retired Colonel who recalls the two-member team worked on the case in spite of their superiors’ opposition. He believes with his former high-ranking officers’ support the team would have proved the separatist regime was working on weapons of mass destruction. “In general, the government attitude and Ministry of Security was very indolent”.
During the 1992 war between the Moldavian Army and Transnistrian separatists heavily supported by the Russian Army the Tiraspol administration decided to gain an advantage over the enemies by manufacturing nuclear weapons. Therefore a special unit was created within the Transnistrian KGB – lately renamed MGB and again KGB – to study new type of armaments. Ret. Col. Leahu says in Cobasna military warehouse existed few special bombs which had a radioactive component. These bombs were used as marks for targets in case of an air strike.
Cobasna military warehouse was built in 1940s and during the communist period was one of the strategic arms depots of the Soviet Union western military district. More than 20.000 tones of weaponry are stored here: the ammunition of former 14th Soviet Army, and the Soviet armament from former East Germany and Czechoslovakia. A report of Moldavia Academy of Science shows that a possible detonation of the Cobasna military depot is equivalent to a 10 tones atomic bomb explosion. Transnistria owns so much Soviet inherited weaponry that could bear a war for five years without supplies.
Ret. Col. Leahu explained in that period Igor Smirnov the self-proclaimed president of the breakaway state and Vladimir Antiufeev head of the MGB came with the idea to use nuclear component of the bombs used as marks. Antiufeev was the MGB chief for ten years and the main Smirnov supporter. When Soviet Union crumbled Antiufeev was an OMON Special Forces colonel in Riga, Latvia. He fled to Transnistria due to crimes he committed as officer and is still on the Latvian authorities most wanted list. He was charged even by the Transnistrian authorities for destroying MGB classified documents.
The former SIS officer received the information the separatist prepared a new weapons from a high-ranking separatist official who was a key person in the group in charge with the nuclear rockets. Three years after the end of the war the official who is dead now came to meet Leahu in Chișinău with the intent to sell the classified documents regarding the warheads for few thousand dollars. Leahu checked the documents, refused to pay the requested amount because the lack of founds of the institution he worked for and offered only few hundreds thus the transaction failed
RCIJ journalists obtained few of these documents which show the Transnistrian authorities’ process of rocket assembly was underway. According to Col. Ret. Leahu the papers were issued by a committee consist of high-raking separatists officials including Minister of Defense. The documents were prepared as backup if the personnel appointed to work with nuclear devices would later develop health issues caused by radiation exposure.
The documents indicate that on October 18th, 1994 A.M. Nosov the 4043 Russian Army Unit commander stationed in Transnistria requested V.P. Kireev’s the head of Civil Protection technical instruction on how to use 38 Alazani rockets with radioactive isotopes. 24 warheads were fully assembled and 14 were partially manufactured. A week later Kireev instructed Nosov to personally come to the Civil Protection headquarters and brings the technical details of the place where the Alazani are stored. In addition Kireev suggested to ban any further works on Alazani, recommended a strict monitor of the warehouse and mark it as radioactive source. The rockets were not in use because the war was over. Ret. Col. Leahu said that that was the moment when some official ordered the radiation to be measured. “The radiation coming from the already assembled rockets was 25 times higher than official standards while on the partially assembled the level was 15-20 times higher”.
Another 4043 Russian Army Unit document confirm there were radioactive measurement performed on the military gear. A committee comprised also of several high-ranking officers examined the contamination level of a Master Sergeant uniform. The uniforms had contaminated areas of 0,5 to 2-3 cm and needed to be burned and buried. This inspection was performed for one under-commissioned officer gear yet more soldiers might have been subjects of similar investigations. More likely the uniform belonged to a soldier in charged with radioactive materials. RCIJ journalists tried to interview the persons mentioned in the army documents with no success. Many of them left Transnistria and stationed in other units in Russia. However, Kireev the head of the Transnistrian Civil Protection still lives in the breakaway region. According to Transnistrian journalists whom we asked for help the separatists officials are not allowed to speak to media unless is a Tiraspol controlled newspaper or TV.
We asked Ionel Bălan – vice-director of Moldova National Agency for Nuclear Activities to inspect the army documents. He said the danger come from the radio-nuclide type (beta, gamma or alpha) to be found in those rockets. “I believe it was beta because they identified contaminated areas. That means it was an open source contamination type. Something that leaked. It is possible they broke a vial with radioactive content”. Bălan however strongly believe there are no such warheads and the contamination was the result of irresponsible soldiers or even dated back from Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
Upon the war ended the Transnistrian authorities took the decision to bury the rockets. The warheads were sent to Army Depot nr. 13 in the vicinity of Tiraspol military airport. Ret. Col. Leahu knows that 13 warheads were buried in a limestone mine in the village of Bâcioc, Grigoriopol District, Transnistria and is convinced that no one would ever find them here. Similar nuclear devices were also stored inside the military airport in Tiraspol. “Soin’s behaviour is the proof. Once he started to sell a device means he knows where they were” Leahu added. “The Tiraspol regime was boldness enough to come out with a price list of different weaponries they intended to sell”.
Dmitrii Soin is a controversial figure. He was member of the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet – the separatist Parliament, intelligence officer and party leader. In 2014 he fled to Russia after being captured in Kyiv and almost extradited to Moldavian government. Soin is on the Interpol wanted list. Vitalie Busuioc the Moldavian prosecutor with the Special Cases confirmed Soin is a wanted criminal indicted for several crimes, murder included.
Some 1992 war veterans do not exclude Bâcioc mine as a hidden place for the modified Alazani. Alexei Mocreac was 33 years old when he left his wife, the children, the house he struggled to build and went to war. That time he worked as foreman in a Grigoriopol vocational school. Mocreac fought along with his students and told the reporters he heard about many containers being transported in his action area from one place to another.
He knew about the rockets from people around the local stationed Cossacks unit which supported the Russian Army. “They scared us with the nuclear bomb and said rockets were brought to Bâcioc in Grigoriopol area. Here are many underground mines where the rockets might have been hidden. There are some military units now whose soldiers check every person as the separatists authorities are afraid of people who might try to find arms. There is something here because they do not fear the Moldavian government”
Veceaslav Pană was chief of staff of the 1st Brigade and of 13th Battalion in the Moldavian Army during the war and confirmed that Transnistrians used anti-hail rockets in the conflict. He explained the separatists used anti-tank mines as rocket charge rather than nuclear substances. Another veteran who asked for anonymity said he was aware the Transnistrians prepared some dangerous weapons but had no idea what the rockets contained.
The Moldavian Anti-hail Department Serghei Eremeico gave details on Alazani rockets in use during the 1990s. Alazani 2M rockets can be easily modified and during the war they were used against the Moldavian army. “There is no secret the rockets were also in Transnistria and it was possible to modernize them by adding some artillery or aviation materials and to launch them against humans. The top of the rocket could be detached and explosives could have been introduced inside”. Alazani 2M weight 8 kg and had a range of 12 km.
We asked SIS about the outcome of any investigation the institution carried out on these weapons. The answer was there are no data on the archives of any such investigations. Ret. Col. Ion Leahu however insists the SIS have in its archive such information. “No one in this institution has time or is willing to search. I used to beg for money to give in exchange for information because there were more data but the insiders wanted money and protection”.
The mysterious mine
The village of Bâcioc lies in a small hilly area 60 km from Chișinău and 20 km from Tiraspol. At the village limits is a one hundred years old underground limestone mine of 250 hectares. The mine was operational until 1990 and the stones were used in constructions. Nicolai Casianenco is the mayor of 800 inhabitants Bâcioc village for 15 years and says the life here became very difficult after the fall of Soviet Union which meant initially closing and afterwards abandoning the mine.
Thirty years passed since there is no extraction activity inside the mine large enough to travel by bus through. Its underground galleries are very often visited by people based on the garbage they left behind inside. The mine is so vast that took authorities one week to find a couple of students who lost themselves in the gallery maze. Casianenco have a map of the mine but is not confident on its accuracy as all the documents connected to it were taken by the Transnistrian officials when the mine was abandoned. While photographing the map we have seen the mayor hiding pieces of papers with more details of the map.
The underground mine is very important to the locals as the only village water supply is here. Yet it became a waste dump for some individuals who illegally placed medical products inside. The local authorities said the issue was properly managed and the chemical waste was immediately removed. “The only issue with the water here”, said Casianenco “is the water’s hardness”. Many locals and people from the nearby villages worked in the mine for years, some for decades. The former miners knows every corner of the underground mine. Many died of cancer. Galina Țvetov worked ten years in the mine and her husband 26. He is now very ill and hardly leaves his bed.
Too many deaths
Since 1995 the village population halved with 800 people living here. Last year twenty-eight people died and only four children were born. Because of so many deaths – 300 in the last ten years – a second cemetery was built. In 2016 every person in four died of cancer. Among them Casianenco’s wife. The local nurse doesn’t know if the alleged hidden rockets are the cause of so many deaths but she said in the last ten years even the children get sick and majority of those up to five years old does not even speak.
Maria Gheorghevna the former head medical nurse cannot certainly explain why the villagers got cancer. “The cancer has many causes not only in Bâcioc but everywhere. I have seen a TV show showing in the next years every fourth inhabitant in Transnistria will get cancer”. The villagers are used with this disease, know each co-local diagnosis and are afraid a third cemetery would be inaugurated.
We wanted to see whether the water supply is radioactive contaminated or not and took a sample to Moldavian specialized institution. The results show the water’s radionuclides level is within the legal limits approved by the Moldavian government. That means the water is not radioactive contaminated. Yet, the mine has 250 hectares.
Ionel Bălan – vice-director of Moldova National Agency for Nuclear Activities said there two types of radioactivity induced diseases. In the acute cases involving a large amount of radiation the hair falls, diarrhea and vomiting are present. In the second case people face oncological diseases or chromosomal genetically transmitted abnormalities.
The Transnistrian Ministry of Health avoided when asked to offer any details on the cancer induced rate of death in Bâcioc. The Oncological Institute in Chișinău does not have any statistics for Transnistria. The National Centre for Public Health officials said there is no survey on cancer in Moldova performed. In the fall of 2016 the Moldavian government launched the first national cancer control programme. In Republic of Moldova almost 9.000 people were registered in 2014 with cancer and 6,000 deaths for a population of about 2,98 million.
Stolen rockets for sale
The Alazni story is not new for the Bâcioc villagers. Here was the only launching anti-hail rockets system in Transnistria as well as the Alazani warehouse. The depot was burglarized years ago by fourteen years old teenagers. Six rockets were stolen and hidden in the mine and took the authorities four days to find them. The recovered rockets were moved to a new location not known by the mayor Casianenco. “Radioactive Alazani were never here. No one could hide anything inside the mine. It was in 2002 – 2003 when the teenagers had stolen the rockets because someone wrote them via internet that is willing to buy such devices. They saw an opportunity to earn some money.”
Galina Țvetov whose husband worked for almost thirty years inside the mine is also convinced there were no warheads here. Even though the anti-hail system here is not in operation since 2010 due to financial restrains the administrative building and the warehouse are very heavily guarded. It took a while to convince one of the guards to allow us to interview Vitalie Miț, head of the Anti-hail Department. He said the system is not operational but the launching system is very expensive and was not dissembled yet. Miț said thousands of Alazani were moved in a Tiraspol based warehouse ten years ago and the warheads stories are just lies.
The Bâcioc anti-hail rockets were several times transported in and out the place. The first time was in 1992 as some locals recalls. The front line was inside the village and the inhabitants were forced to leave their houses after a large explosion of the rockets’ warehouse which was fired upon. The second time was after the war when the Alazani were moved back only to be moved again ten years later without an official explanation. The warheads here seem to not exist and yet in 2005 journalists with the Sunday Times negotiated the purchase of three such rockets. The man journalists negotiated with was named Dmitrii and each device costed 200.000 US dollars. The affair was not concluded though.
The article draw international institutions attention and no in-depth investigation were performed until now. EU Border Mission to Moldova and Ukraine officials said it’s not the institution’s competence to investigate but OSCE’s – European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. OSCE officials said they are aware of the media articles but cannot perform any inquiry due to lack of certain proofs of warheads. A similar answer was given by a Moldavian official. Basically, both EU and Moldavian institution wait for solid proof given by a third party to perform an investigation in the self-declared state of Transnistria.
This article was developed within the “Overcoming media’s stereotypes through cross border co-operation” coordinated by the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism and supported by The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation – A Project of the German Marshall Fund.