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The Moscow Tribune
12 October 2001
Feared biological attacks not likely
By Dmitry Polikarpov

Amid fears of an anthrax outbreak in Florida, Russian media has alleged that 20 major cities could be targets for biological attacks by Chechen terrorists in the near future. Interfax said earlier this week that a terrorist group headed by field commander Abu Valid, allegedly linked to the Taliban, has been planning to cause massive epidemics among Russians.

The Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) sources confirmed these reports, hinting that the terrorists may be trying to send several "couriers" infected with contagious diseases, like plague or anthrax, to Moscow and other cities. However, the acting chief of MVD's Air and Water Transport Department, Ivan Podkolvin, said that the police "are prepared for such a scenario" and that such tactics ˘would not have massive impact anyway."

Despite alarms published by the media, most analysts have been sceptical about the possibility of a viral attack against Russia. They say that other possible ways to employ biological weapons, rather than sending "couriers," are even less probable since they require major investments and unique equipment.

"Biological attacks against Moscow and other major cities are unlikely. First, to get a virus and to cultivate it in quantities sufficient to provoke an epidemic, modern research laboratories are required. Second, it is extremely difficult to transport and to properly employ a virus culture. This also requires trained personnel and special equipment. You cannot just spray the virus in the air," an officer from the Presidential Security Service (FSO), in charge of chemical monitoring of state buildings told The Moscow Tribune this week.

"Massive biological attacks may be effective only in military conflicts. Otherwise, they can be quickly localised. However, there are rather more inexpensive methods instead: for example, to blow up a tank carrying ammonia," the officer said.

Russia has over 30 secret plants producing agents for biological weapons. The virus culture undergoes various mutations so that it can resist antibiotics, unlike natural analogues. The virus cultures are also stored at military plants and medical research institutes located in Moscow and other major cities.

Irina Mescheriakova, director of a laboratory at the Moscow Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, said that terrorists might attempt to seize viruses from one of the many scientific centres, which are mostly unprotected because of obsolete security systems.

"Where can they get viruses? Right here, in the safe. Another question is how they are going to use them," Mescheriakova said.

Several cases of uncontrolled atmospheric emissions from plants producing biological weapons were registered during the Soviet era. In 1979, a Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) plant emitted anthrax virus culture, causing 350 deaths, according to official statistics. Independent studies say that up to 50,000 people might have been affected by the outbreak.

Amid public anxiety over the possibility of terrorist attacks, many analysts have accused the media of aggravating the situation. Several television programmes and periodicals have discussed schemes of possible attacks against Moscow and criticised the lack of awareness of law enforcement agencies.

"Russian and international media cultivate hysteria by offering different scenarios of possible terrorist acts. Most of them are totally absurd from a professional point of view. Terrorists themselves should be grateful to journalists. They may limit themselves to only one monthly action ˇ the rest will be done by the media," said an analyst with the non-governmental Counter Terror Association, based in Moscow.

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