U.S., Ukraine Sign Bioterror Agreement

KIEV, Ukraine -- The United States and Ukraine signed a joint agreement here Monday designed to stem the threat of bioterrorism by placing modern safeguards on deadly pathogens and other material dating from a Soviet-era biological weapons program that now could be vulnerable to theft.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (L) speaks with U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, Head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during their meeting in Kiev

"The agreement has a benefit for the citizens of both countries," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has been working several years to achieve the U.S.-Ukraine accord.

As Lugar and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., met with Ukrainian leaders and participated in a signing ceremony for the biological weapons agreement, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a rare written apology to the senators for detaining them more than three hours Sunday as they tried to leave Russia for Ukraine.

There was no immediate explanation for the delay, but Moscow officials agreed to meet with their U.S. counterparts to discuss why American planes have repeatedly encountered difficulties leaving Russia. The ministry said the U.S. plane technically had not been detained, but a spokesman added, "We regret the misunderstanding that arose and the inconvenience caused to the senators."

Lugar did not dwell on the plane incident after leaving Russia and arriving in Kiev. Instead he sought to draw attention to the freshly minted agreement that effectively expands the Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991 to allow the United States to help protect Ukraine's biological weapons.

"Huge stockpiles of weapons left over from previous times in Ukraine are dangerous for the people of this country as well as for other countries," Lugar said, calling the agreement an achievement the United States has been trying to reach for nearly four years.

Five other former Soviet republics already have signed agreements to have the United States help upgrade their facilities that store biological weapons, but Ukraine previously had resisted signing the agreement. Even after a Democratic revolution last fall swept in a new team of leaders, the reluctance continued in Ukraine, which government officials attributed to Kiev's desire not to appear too close to the United States.

During an afternoon ceremony at the Central Sanitary and Epidemiological Station, the Ukraine equivalent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agreement was signed by lower-level deputies from the Ministry of Health in a small, out-of-the-way room. The agreement, heralded by Lugar, was barely discussed during earlier meetings Monday with President Viktor Yushchenko and other Ukrainian leaders.

But the need for the agreement was clear, Obama said after touring the dilapidated building, where viruses were locked behind thin padlocks or not at all. He said the health building, near central Kiev, could be subject to break-ins or burglaries of the deadly pathogens, including anthrax, diphtheria and cholera.

"This agreement will help Ukraine improve its ability to diagnose, detect and respond to public health risks," Obama said. "When it comes to issues of security against terrorist threats and security against infectious diseases, these problems know no borders."

The agreement would provide new equipment that would significantly shorten time required to diagnose the outbreak of a contagious disease and to assess whether it is the result of a terrorist attack. The deal also allows cooperation between the countries to work together to ward off infectious diseases.

Many of the security upgrades and other improvements to the Ukraine national heath center are subject to congressional approval. Lugar said he did not know how much the program would cost or when it would be completed.

"I had hoped the agreement might have been signed at the same time a year ago when I visited the laboratories, but that was not possible then," Lugar said. "It is possible now."

Dr. Lubov Nekrassova, a director of the Ukraine national heath center, said the security upgrades and new technology were desperately needed to keep lab materials from being stolen.

"The common sense finally will be put higher than the political difficulties that prevented us from signing this agreement," Nekrassova said.

Lugar and Obama are on a weeklong tour of Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, inspecting destruction sites for nuclear weapons that fall under the Nunn-Lugar Act. While neither senator wished to revisit the fact that their plane that was detained one day earlier in Russia, the curious incident was the opening question at a morning news conference.

"We are not certain why or what was the particular activity that caused that delay," Lugar said. "We are pleased that our flight was able to continue to Kiev, albeit three hours later. We still had a good night's sleep."

Source: Chicago Tribune