Russia's Defense Ministry, trying to stamp out rumors about "nuclear suitcases" going missing, on Thursday denied ever producing them and said no country could afford to manufacture and maintain such portable devices.

"Nuclear suitcases have never been produced and are not now being produced," Igor Valynkin, head of the ministry's department that oversees nuclear security, told a news briefing.He said Russia's centralized system of tough controls on all military production provided an effective deterrent against their production.

Valynkin said building a nuclear suitcase was theoretically possible but added that it would only last a few months and would then have to be replaced at exorbitant cost.

"Not even the United States would attempt to do that."

President Boris Yeltsin's former security adviser, Alexander Lebed, recently alleged that the Russian military had lost track of as many as 100 suitcase-size nuclear bombs, any one of which could kill up to 100,000 people.

Lebed, a popular tough-talking reserve general with presidential ambitions, said the devices could be detonated by one person within half an hour.

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On Monday Yeltsin's former environmental safety adviser, Alexei Yablokov, appeared to give some credence to Lebed's claim, saying the military might simply have no record of the portable nuclear bombs, which he said were made in the 1970s for the Soviet KGB for "terrorist purposes."

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and other senior officials insist that Russia's nuclear arsenal is under firm control.

Valynkin said his 50-year-old department had always had sole responsibility for Soviet and Russian nuclear stocks and said neither the KGB nor its successor organizations would have the means to produce the devices mentioned by Yablokov.

Valynkin said his ministry, working in close contact with the Ministry of Atomic Energy, kept detailed records of the whereabouts of all nuclear stocks and said the loss of any materials would be discovered immediately.

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