Sunday, January 18, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan has expanded an investigation of its premier nuclear weapons laboratory, detaining as many as seven scientists and administrators amid charges that sensitive technology may have spread to countries such as Iran, North Korea and Libya, officials said yesterday.

Pakistan has denied any official involvement in sharing technology with those countries, but has acknowledged that individual scientists acting on their own might have leaked information.

Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed said five to seven persons at the Khan Research Laboratories were taken in for questioning over the past few days. But he said the detained men were not “necessarily involved in something or have allegations against them.”

Among the detained was Islam-ul Haq, a director at the laboratory, who was picked up Saturday as he was dining at the residence of the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The laboratory is named after Mr. Khan, a national hero for leading Pakistan to its underground test of the Islamic world’s first nuclear bomb in 1998. The bomb was designed as a deterrent to Pakistan’s nuclear-armed neighbor, India. Mr. Haq is the laboratory’s principal staff officer.

Mr. Haq’s wife, Nilofar Islam, said Mr. Khan told her that her husband was detained but “we have had no contact with him. We don’t know where he is and what he is being asked.”

Pakistan has stepped up its efforts in the U.S.-led war on terror. Yesterday, authorities arrested seven suspected al Qaeda militants and seized a weapons cache in the teeming port city of Karachi.

During the past two months, Pakistan has interrogated a few scientists at the laboratory, acting on information about Iran’s nuclear program from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog, officials say.

Mr. Khan also has been questioned, although he has not been detained and still is treated as an official dignitary in Pakistan.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said U.S. officials have presented evidence to Pakistan’s leaders of Pakistani involvement in the spread of nuclear weapons technology.

The Jan. 2 arrest at a Denver airport of South African-based businessman Asher Karni, accused of smuggling nuclear bomb triggers to Pakistan, deepened suspicions of the country’s involvement in the nuclear black market.

The New York Times also reported that sophisticated centrifuge design technology used to enrich uranium had been passed to Libya even after a pledge by President Pervez Musharraf to rein in Pakistani scientists. Pakistan dismissed the charge as “absolutely false.”

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