updated 1/26/2007 7:33:59 AM ET 2007-01-26T12:33:59

A top official at a Russian state scientific institute confirmed Friday that Georgia had sent Russia a sample of uranium allegedly seized in a sting operation and that it was weapons-grade, Russian news agencies reported.

However, Igor Shkabura, deputy director of the Bochvar Inorganic Materials Institute, said the size of the sample provided by Georgia was too small to determine its origin, the RIA-Novosti and ITAR-Tass news agencies said.

Shkabura’s statement was the first public comment by a named Russian official to claims by Georgia that it arrested and jailed a Russian man last year for trying to sell weapons-grade uranium to an agent posing as a rich foreign buyer.

The reports that emerged Wednesday, confirmed by U.S. officials, raised renewed concern about security at Russia’s array of nuclear facilities. Shkabura said the uranium sent by Georgia “could be used for military productions, including nuclear weapons,” according to ITAR-Tass.

The reports aggravated already-high tensions between Russia and Georgia. The two countries have been at odds for years over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two renegade regions of Georgia that seek either independence or absorption into Russia.

Georgian officials say their agent made contact with the man selling contraband uranium in South Ossetia, which is widely seen as a regional epicenter for smuggling.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry late Thursday issued a statement saying the uranium sting highlighted the need for international observer missions in the two regions, a proposal that Tbilisi has been pushing in recent months.

Russia has peacekeeper contingents in both regions, which have been under the control of unrecognized separatist governments since fighting ended in the mid-1990s.

The ministry statement said “Georgia is far from politicizing these questions.”

But Abkhazia’s separatist foreign minister Sergei Shamba denounced the Georgian statement as “an attempt to compromise our republic and present it as a region that threatens peace and stability,” the Interfax news agency reported.

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