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Stolen radioactive material located in Mexico

TEPOJACO, Mexico -- Mexican soldiers Wednesday set up a safety perimeter around a cancer-treating device containing dangerous radioactive material that was stolen along with a truck from a gas station.

The people who stole the truck and removed the device from a steel-reinforced wooden box and left it in a rural area north of Mexico City are probably already dead or dying, the national nuclear safety board said.

But the danger of contamination is minimal because the area where the device was found is so uninhabited, it added. No evacuations were necessary.

There was no immediate word on who might have stolen the truck. It was on its way to dispose of the disused medical device at a nuclear storage facility.

Experts are trying to figure out the best way to recover the device safely, the National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS) said in a statement Wednesday evening.

The thieves apparently just wanted the truck, which was stolen Monday, without knowing about the cargo it carried, officials said.

The device containing cobalt-60 was taken out of its container and left hundreds of meters from the truck in Hueypoxtla, said Mardonio Jimenez, operations director at the CNSNS.

'Either ... dead or about to die'

“It's almost absolutely certain that whoever removed this material by hand is either already dead or about to die,” CNSNS director Juan Eibenschutz told Milenio television.

Eibenschutz said the transport company failed to live up to its commitment, saying the truck lacked a tracking device or proper security despite the firm's experience. He said the matter should be investigated.

The white Volkswagen Worker truck was transporting the device from a hospital in the northwestern city of Tijuana when it was stolen at a service station in central Hidalgo state.

The vehicle was supposed to deliver the material to a radioactive waste disposal facility in the central state named Mexico.

The International Atomic Energy Agency warned that the material was “extremely dangerous” if removed from its shielding. Experts also said the 60 grams of cobalt-60 inside it was enough to make a “dirty bomb,” designed to spread radioactivity.

Authorities had searched for the truck in six states and the capital, delivering radio messages for people to call an emergency number in case they saw the truck.

The driver told investigators that two gunmen approached him at a Pemex service station, tied him up and drove away with the truck, according to a text of the testimony shown by the Hidalgo state prosecutor's office.

The manager of the Pemex service station, an hour's drive north of Mexico City, told AFP the driver appeared to have parked across the street to rest overnight.

The material was on its way to the Radioactive Waste Storage Center in Maquixco, Mexico state. The facility is surrounded by a white fence topped with barbed wire, but no armed guards were visible outside, an AFP correspondent said.

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Teletherapy equipment containing a radioactive source is loaded on a truck in Tijuana, Mexico for transport in this handout picture taken on Nov. 27 and released on Wednesday, Dec. 4 by the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) press office. The truck was stolen Monday in Hidalgo state. (AFP)

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