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Hunt on in Mexico for stolen radioactive load

A cargo truck hauling extremely dangerous radioactive material from used medical equipment was stolen from a gas station in Mexico, and authorities put out an alert in six central states and the capital to find it, Mexican officials said Wednesday.

The truck was carrying a metal container of cobalt-60 headed to a nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

Though the container is heavily sealed in lead and designed to be difficult to break into and to survive accidents intact, it contains an amount of radioactive material that could do serious damage if opened, Eibenschutz said. Direct exposure would result in death within a few minutes, he said.

"This is a radioactive source that is very strong," Eibenschutz told The Associated Press, adding that it can be almost immediately fatal, depending on proximity. "The intensity is very big if it is broken."

Eibenschutz didn't know the exact weight, but said it was the largest amount stolen in recent memory, and the intensity of the material caused the alert. Local, state and federal authorities, including the military, were searching for the truck.

The material was used in obsolete radiation therapy equipment that is being replaced throughout Mexico's public health system. It was coming from the general hospital in the northern border city of Tijuana, Eibenshutz said.

The thieves most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane, he said.

Eibenschutz said there was nothing so far to indicate the theft of the cobalt was intentional or in any way intended for an act of terrorism.

The thieves likely didn't know what the truck was carrying, and might have discarded the metal container, which is about a meter square, he said.

"If someone finds a big chunk of metal with radiation symbols all over it, they should notify us immediately and don't open it," Eibenschutz said.

The truck marked "Transportes Ortiz" left Tijuana on Nov. 28 and was headed to the storage facility when the driver stopped to rest at a gas station in Tepojaco, in Hidalgo state north of Mexico City.

The driver, Valentin Escamilla Ortiz, told authorities he was sleeping in the truck when two men with a gun approached about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. They made him get out, tied his hands and feet and left him in a vacant lot nearby.

When he was able to free himself, he ran back to the gas station to get help.

The truck has a GPS locator but it wasn't active at the time of the theft, Eibenschutz said.

Mexican customs officials were on alert to prevent the truck from crossing the border, Eibenschutz said. He said the material could not be used to make a nuclear bomb, but could be used in a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive that disseminates radioactive material.

All of the U.S. ports of entry have radiation detectors in place and trucks crossing the border are routinely screened for radiation.

On average, a half dozen thefts of radioactive materials are reported in Mexico each year and none have proven to be aimed at the cargo, Eibenschutz said. He said that in all the cases the thieves were after shipping containers or the vehicles.

Unintentional thefts of radioactive materials are not uncommon, said an official familiar with cases reported by International Atomic Energy Agency member states, who was not authorized to comment on the case. In some cases, radioactive sources have ended up being sold as scrap, causing serious harm to people who unknowingly come into contact with it.

In a Mexican case in the 1970s, one thief died and the other was injured when they opened a container holding radioactive material, he said.

The container was junked and sold to a foundry, where it contaminated some steel reinforcement bars made there. Eibenschutz said all foundries in Mexico now have equipment to detect radioactive material.

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Associated Press writers Emilio Lopez in Pachuca, Mexico; Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City; Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.

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