Saturday, February 14, 2004

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto says it is highly unlikely that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb, sold nuclear secrets without the knowledge of the military.

“Nobody in Pakistan believes Qadeer Khan just woke up one day and decided to sell the nuclear secrets on his own,” Mrs. Bhutto said in an interview. “[He] is being made a scapegoat to cover up the involvement of military leaders.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Khan made a televised confession that he sold nuclear secrets through an underground network and that the Pakistani government or the military was not involved. Mr. Khan was then pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf.

Mrs. Bhutto said during a visit to Washington last week that both military and intelligence officials probably knew about the sales.

Gen. Musharraf has called Mr. Khan “still my hero” and allowed him to keep all the money he purportedly made from the nuclear deals after conceding that the scientist violated Pakistani law.

“It’s simply bizarre,” Mrs. Bhutto said.

Mrs. Bhutto, who was head of government for two partial terms — 1988-90 and 1993-96 — said top Pakistani nuclear scientists reported directly to the prime minister’s office, which had to clear their travels abroad.

So Mr. Khan could not have traveled to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and other places, to strike his deals without the knowledge of the government, she said.

The scientists were also provided a round-the-clock security detail, she said. In 1989, for instance, she said Mr. Khan was forced to cancel a trip abroad because of an intelligence warning about a plan to kidnap him. She refused to name the country that was his destination.

Asked if the military could have tried to sell nuclear secrets without her knowledge when she was prime minister, she said: “It is possible, but not likely,” since the prime minister’s office had tight control over the nuclear program.

Mrs. Bhutto also referred to a full-page advertisement in a Pakistani newspaper that appeared in July 2000 in which the government invited applications for the export of sensitive nuclear materials, including enriched uranium.

The ad, which ran about 10 months after Gen. Musharraf took power in a coup, surprised many in Pakistan as it seemed to violate nuclear export guidelines set in place just weeks earlier. Two days later, the Pakistani government reportedly called the ad a “mistake” and said it had been pulled.

A Pakistani journalist who has a copy of the advertisement said officials in Gen. Musharraf’s office told him the ad was run after the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a certificate allowing Pakistan to sell nuclear materials for commercial purposes.

Hamid Mir, the bureau chief of GEO Television, a private station in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, said the officials told him the exports were meant for medical purposes.

As far as he was aware, Mr. Mir said in a telephone interview yesterday, there were no clarifications from the government on reasons for the inclusion in the ad of enriched uranium, which is used in making nuclear bombs, and other sensitive materials.

A spokeswoman at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington said she could not comment immediately on the advertisement.

It is not clear if anyone responded to the advertisement or if any sales were made as a result. Gen. Musharraf has categorically stated that no proliferation activities occurred since he came to power in October 1999.

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