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U.S. arrests man from Sierra Leone in Iran uranium sting

MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors charged a man from Sierra Leone with trying to sell undercover agents 1,000 tons of yellowcake uranium he thought would be shipped to Iran, after he was arrested in New York with a sample of the toxic material hidden in his luggage.

Patrick Campbell, 33, of Freetown, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday after he arrived from Sierra Leone with the sample of uranium concealed in the soles of shoes in his luggage, according to a criminal complaint filed in a Florida federal court on Thursday.

He allegedly responded to an ad in May 2012 on the website Alibaba.com seeking to purchase uranium that was placed by an undercover U.S. agent posing as an American broker representing persons in Iran, according to an affidavit by Homeland Security Investigations agent Louise Miller.

Campbell agreed to travel to Miami to meet the supposed buyer, who could then analyze the purity of the uranium.

Campbell made an initial court appearance in New York on Thursday. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine if he is found guilty of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran as well as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The United States and its Western allies are pressing Iran to curb its uranium enrichment program, which they say is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran says its nuclear activity is for purely peaceful purposes.

Campbell said he was affiliated with a company engaged in mining and selling of uranium, gold, and diamonds for export and communicated via telephone, Skype and email that he was seeking to buy processed uranium 308, also known as yellowcake, to be delivered to Iran, Miller stated.

Yellowcake uranium, when enriched, can be used in the manufacture of nuclear fuel and weapons.

The uranium was to be disguised in a mix with other types of ore. The shipment for delivery to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas was to yield 1,000 tons of yellowcake, according to the criminal complaint.

After his arrest, Campbell admitted to agents that he had engaged in talks for "a contract for the sale of uranium to be delivered to Iran," the complaint said.

When confronted, he also admitted that he had brought a sample of the raw uranium ore with him concealed in his luggage.

"Campbell assisted the agents in removing the Uranium from beneath the inside soles of his shoes and plastic bags containing Uranium were recovered from two of Campbell's shoes," according to the complaint.

A contract for the sale and delivery of the uranium was also found on a portable thumb drive in Campbell's possession.

(Reporting by David Adams and Kevin Gray; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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