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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 18:12 GMT
Uncovering Pakistan's nuclear secrets

By Zaffar Abbas
BBC Islamabad correspondent

An investigation into the possible involvement of some of Pakistan's best known scientists in the illegal sale of nuclear technology has sent shockwaves across the country.

Abdul Qadeer Khan
Mr Khan is revered by many in his country
Leaks in the local media talk about alleged payments of hundreds of millions of dollars to a few scientists and officials in return for the possible transfer of nuclear know-how, and even hardware, to countries like Iran and Libya.

Families and supporters of the detained scientists say it's a government-sponsored media trial to defame people who, until a few months ago, were regarded as national heroes.

But as details of the high-level probe start to come out, making Pakistan's future as a responsible nuclear-power state look vulnerable, some people believe the "revelations" have been nothing short of an atomic disaster.

But is Pakistan heading for meltdown over the affair?

The investigation centres round Dr AQ Khan, often described as the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.

Some 30 years ago he set up Pakistan's first uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta after what many believed was clandestinely acquiring nuclear know-how from the West.

Scientists in the dock

Until now, any comments on that or on the wealth and property he amassed over the years, or the millions he spent to project his image, were regarded as "unpatriotic".

But in recent weeks things have changed drastically.

Dr Khan is confined to his home in Islamabad and a security sleuth stationed outside is not there to protect him, but to restrict his free movement.

He has now lost his job as special adviser to the prime minister on scientific affairs.

Officials say he has already been questioned about his role in unauthorised proliferation and his activities are still under investigation.

RELATIVES' FEARS
Relatives protest at the scientists' detention

The family of Dr Khan, a man who has always had financial and bureaucratic support from the military, says he is being made a scapegoat.

Some of his closest associates at the Khan Research Laboratories (named after him) at Kahuta are undergoing intense questioning about their direct or indirect involvement in the clandestine proliferation operation.

They include former director general Mohammed Farooq, chief nuclear engineer Dr Nazir Ahmed, as well as a number of former army officials, who were responsible for the security of the nuclear establishment.

A few, like prominent scientist Yasin Chouhan, have been sent back home but officials say their names have still not been cleared.

Startling revelations

The investigation began when, under pressure from the international community, Iran agreed to provide details about its nuclear enrichment ambitions.

A public trial of any of these scientists... may open up a Pandora's box about Pakistan's covert activities in the past

Now it appears it contained information about Iran's acquisition of nuclear technology from an illegal world nuclear market with the help of some Pakistani scientists.

As Libya, too, announced the dismantling of its nuclear weapons programme, investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered a Pakistani connection.

Pakistani officials say when the IAEA shared this information with Islamabad, and asked for answers, it became a real challenge for the government to uncover the truth.

Islamabad had maintained, and it continues to do so, that it has never been involved in proliferation.

In order to clear its name, it sent investigators to Tehran and Tripoli, and held intense discussions with the IAEA in Vienna, leading to the high-level investigation.

Leaks

The entire probe is being carried out in extreme secrecy by the country's premier intelligence agency, ISI, and little is known about any clandestine activity that may have taken place in the country's nuclear establishment in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Pakistan Hatf missiles
There is widespread interest in Pakistan's nuclear know-how
Officially Pakistan maintains that ever since its nuclear tests in 1998, there have been several security measures to prevent proliferation.

According to a spokesman, the investigations have narrowed down to a few scientists and officials, and that there's a possibility that in the past some people may have indulged in proliferation out of greed.

But conscious of a possible public backlash, the authorities have been making selective leaks in the media to create a favourable environment before officially revealing the involvement of any leading scientists in proliferation.

These reports suggest that it all started when, faced with international restrictions, Pakistan itself was using available nuclear know-how and technology in the international illegal market for its own covert nuclear programme.

Offshore accounts

During this period, some people are said to have been tempted into siphoning off knowledge and material to countries like Iran and Libya.

But many people formerly associated with the country's nuclear establishment say that if proliferation involved the transfer of centrifuges or other hardware, it would not have been possible without the involvement of either the government or some top officials.

Some have even pointed accusing fingers at a former military chief, General Aslam Beg, who has since then denied any involvement.

It's a tricky situation for President Pervez Musharraf and his government.

They want to clear Pakistan's name, but perhaps cannot afford a public trial of any of these scientists as it may open up a Pandora's box about Pakistan's covert activities in the past.

Many people here fear that once Pakistan admits to the involvement some of its top scientists in proliferation, it may bring in more international pressure to ask Islamabad to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and open up its facilities to international safeguards.

Officials say no such thing is on the cards.

But they, too, are hoping that the safety rings around Pakistan's nuclear programme, including the government's political will, may prevent a complete meltdown.




SEE ALSO:
Court defends Pakistan scientists
23 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Pakistan draws up nuclear report
21 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Pakistani scientist 'a scapegoat'
24 Dec 03  |  South Asia
Pakistan bomb experts 'arrested'
11 Dec 03  |  South Asia


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