Pakistan halts nuclear scientists' travel

Investigation intensifies into technology transfers

January 21, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan barred all scientists working on its nuclear weapons program yesterday from leaving the country, as the government intensified its inquiry into allegations that nuclear technology had been shared with Iran.

At the same time, a senior intelligence official said a former army commander had approved the transfer of technology to Iran.

The official said the scientist who had led the effort to build an atomic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had told investigators that any sharing of nuclear technology with Iran had the approval of Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the commander of Pakistan's army from 1988 to 1991. The official said aides to Khan had told investigators the same thing.

It is not known whether investigators have questioned Beg, who is retired. While army chief, Beg publicly advocated a strategic partnership between Iran and Pakistan. But in an interview in November, the general said he had not approved the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran or any other country.

"I was privy to the nuclear policy," he said. "There was a policy of nuclear restraint."

American officials say they believe that Pakistan has shared nuclear technology with Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistani officials have said that no technology was given to Libya, that no technology is currently going to North Korea and that the allegations about Iran are being aggressively investigated.

They have said that individuals might have leaked technology to Iran in the late 1980s and early 1990s but the government never authorized such a move.

In a speech to Parliament on Saturday, President Pervez Musharraf, a general who seized power in a coup in 1999, said Pakistan had to prove to the international community that it was a responsible nuclear power.

Within hours, eight former and current officials were taken into custody for questioning, government officials said. Three scientists had already been detained for questioning in November and December.

The aggressiveness of the inquiry has provoked protests across the political spectrum and accusations that the Musharraf government is reacting to pressure from Washington.

On Monday an alliance of hard-line Islamic parties, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Front, announced that it would begin nationwide street demonstrations.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the acting head of the religious alliance, which holds the third-largest number of seats in Parliament, called the inquiry the "worst kind of victimization of national heroes to please the Bush administration."

Secular, pro-Western political parties and analysts, as well as the families of the scientists, also criticized the government, saying scientists lauded as national heroes weeks ago were now being humiliated. They said senior army and government officials were scapegoating scientists to increase their own credibility with Western leaders.

Khwaja Asif, a member of Parliament for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), a secular party, said it was doubtful that individuals could secretly transfer technology without the military knowing.

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