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Former Prime Minister Says Pakistan Had Nuclear Capability Long Before Nuclear Tests

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto says her country has had a nuclear capability far longer than commonly believed.

In an exclusive VOA interview, Ms. Bhutto said her government had a nuclear capability when she came into office the first time in 1988, ten years before Pakistan's first nuclear test.

She said Pakistan had all the components for nuclear weapons, but never assembled them until India set off several tests in 1998. "When I became Prime Minister I was told we had not put together the bomb. We had the components of the bomb. So, when is a chicken a chicken? Is it a chicken when you have it in separate parts but you don't put it together? Or is it a chicken when you actually put it together? And although we had the components of a nuclear weapon, we took the conscious decision not to put together a nuclear weapon, which is why when India detonated it took us some time to put together the weapon and actually have our own tests," she said.

But she says Pakistan may have had a nuclear weapon long before that. She says her father, former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had told her from his prison cell that preparations for a nuclear test had been made in 1977. Her father was hanged by General Zia Ul-Haq in 1979. "And I remember that he expected Pakistan to have its first nuclear test in 1976 - sorry, in August, 1977. I was in his conduit to the person who was actually running the nuclear program who is no longer alive now. His name was Mr. Munir and he was chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. He told us that the nuclear test had been delayed to December 1977, and then he told us the nuclear test had been indefinitely delayed," she said.

Pakistan's nuclear program was sparked by India's own nuclear ambitions. Ms. Bhutto says that what India has, Pakistan generally wants as well.

But Ms. Bhutto denies any knowledge of the nuclear proliferation network of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. Mr. Khan has confessed to peddling nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Pakistan's current president, General Pervez Musharraf, has not allowed outsiders to interview Mr. Khan to learn the full extent of his international atomic arms bazaar.

Ms. Bhutto says it is impossible that he acted alone without official connivance, but that she was not aware of his activities. "I find it very hard to believe that A.Q. Khan could have done it on his own," she said. "It was a vast network involving weapons of mass destruction. There were so many trips that he made. A man who could not leave the country without government permission - how was he making so many trips? I can understand one trip to Iran for religious purposes. But 17 trips, as has been printed in one of the newspaper reports?"

Ms. Bhutto says she did get missile technology from North Korea, but that Pakistan paid cash for it. "We would obtain the blueprints but we would keep them for ourselves and we would not develop them until India did it. And it was on that assurance I went to North Korea and obtained the missiles. But my government paid for it in money," she said. "There was no question of (nuclear technology) transfers."

Ms. Bhutto remains in political exile in London and Dubai. But she says her husband, released from a Pakistani prison last year after serving an eight-year jail term for corruption, will return home in April to take up the political mantle that she is barred from assuming.