International investigators and Western intelligence have for the first time named Sudan as a major conduit for sophisticated engineering equipment that could be used in nuclear weapons programs.
Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment was imported into the African country over a three-year period before the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 and has since disappeared, according to the Guardian newspaper's sources.
Western governments, UN detectives and international analysts trying to stem the illicit trade in weapons of mass destruction technology are alarmed by the black market trade.
A European intelligence assessment obtained by the Guardian says Sudan has been using front companies and third countries to import machine tools, gauges and high-tech processing equipment from Western Europe for its military industries in recent years.
But it says Sudan is also being used as a conduit, as much of the equipment is too sophisticated for the country.
"The suspicion arises that at least some of the machinery was not destined for or not only destined for Sudan," the assessment says. "Among the equipment purchased by Sudan there are dual-use goods whose use in Sudan appears implausible because of their high technological standard."
Western analysts and intelligence agencies suspect the equipment has been or is being traded by the nuclear proliferation racket headed by the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who admitted nuclear trading two years ago and is under house arrest in Islamabad.
Khan is known to have visited Sudan at least once between 1998 and 2002, and the suspicion is he may have used the country as a warehouse for the high-tech engineering equipment he was selling to Libya, Iran and North Korea for the assembly of centrifuges for enriching uranium, the most common way of building a nuclear bomb.
Sudan has been ravaged by internal conflicts for decades and has until recently been governed by an Islamist regime. Analysts point out that a "failing state" such as Sudan is an ideal candidate for the illicit trading.
David Albright, who is investigating the Khan network and tracks nuclear proliferation for the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said about ?20 million (US$34.6 million) worth of dual-use engineering equipment was imported by Sudan between 1999 and 2001.
The purchases were denominated in German marks (before the introduction of the euro), suggesting some of the equipment came from Germany.
Investigators say the machinery has not been found in Sudan. Nor has it been found in Libya, since Tripoli gave up its secret nuclear bomb project in December 2003. Given Osama bin Laden's long relationship with Sudan, there had been suspicions of al-Qaeda involvement. But the goods have not been found in Afghanistan either.
"A huge amount of dual-use equipment was bought by Sudan and people don't know where it went to," said Albright. "It's a big mystery. The equipment has not been found anywhere."
A senior international investigator confirmed that Sudan had been importing the material and that the transports had ceased in 2001.
"No one now seems to be buying," he said. "Perhaps the activity stopped because they got all that they needed."
Iran is also suspected of being behind the Sudanese dealings.