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Nuclear trigger dealer arrested

Sam Kiley / The Times of London 25jul01

ISRAEL is facing the possibility of embarrassing new scrutiny of its unconfirmed nuclear weapons programme after the arrest in Spain of an American arms dealer who has been on the run for 16 years. He had been charged with selling 850 Krytron nuclear triggers to the Israelis.

Richard Smith, 71, has been a fugitive from the United States since he jumped $100,000 (£68,500) bail and fled from Los Angeles before being brought to trial on 30 charges of arms trafficking and forged documents. He left with his wife on a yacht.

The American citizen was arrested by police in Málaga two weeks ago. He had been living in Spain since 1985.

The US State Department would not comment on the case but confirmed that officials were aware of the arrest. Sources indicated that it was now up to the Spanish High Court to rule whether there was a case for extraditing Mr Smith to America. He is expected to be taken to Madrid while his extradition is considered.

When Mr Smith was arrested in May 1985, Israel said that the Krytron triggers were for the pharmaceutical industry. But the special microswitches are also a vital part in the mechanism of exploding an atomic weapon and are banned for export to any country.

After Mr Smith disappeared, Israel returned several unused Krytron switches and claimed the others had not been used for nuclear purposes.

Mr Smith, an electronics engineer, ran a business in Los Angeles which manufactured Krytron microchips. One of his customers was the Nasa space agency. Between 1980 and 1982 he is said to have forged documents that enabled him to export the chips illegally to Israel for unspecified sums.

Israel’s unofficial nuclear weapons programme at the secret underground facility at Demona was first divulged by Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli technician, to The Sunday Times in the 1980s. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment after being lured from London to Rome by Israeli agents. Vanunu was held in solitary confinement until March 1998.

If Mr Smith is extradited to America, there are fears in Israel that he will expose the network of sympathetic companies that have helped the Israeli nuclear programme over the years. US Intelligence believes that Israel has up to 100 nuclear weapons, some of which are alleged to have been made with nuclear fuel diverted illegally by Israeli agents in the US.

The case of Mr Smith is one of several that have caused friction between the US and Israel. Jonathan Pollard, a civilian US Navy intelligence analyst, spied for Israel in the 1980s, passing secret information to an Israeli intelligence officer, Colonel Aviem Sella. Pollard was given a life sentence.

A spokesman for the national police in Málaga, southern Spain, said: “In 1985 Los Angeles authorities filed an international warrant for Mr Smith’s arrest and extradition. We’re complying with that request. The case has been transferred to the High Court.” It was not clear why the Spanish police had taken action only two weeks ago, 16 years after the original request.

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