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Experts: Questions Still Linger Over Khan Nuclear 'Black Market' Network

U.S. officials, lawmakers and experts on nuclear proliferation are pushing for more answers in the case of a global nuclear black market, run by AQ Khan, who used to head Pakistan's secret nuclear program. Their calls come several weeks after Islamabad announced that its investigation into the AQ Khan network is finished. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

The man widely regarded as the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, AQ Khan, also ran a clandestine global network that sold nuclear material and technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and possibly others.

In early May, Pakistan released without charges Mohammed Farooq, a close associate of AQ Khan. Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam said this marked the apparent end of Islamabad's investigation in Khan's nuclear network.

"As far as we are concerned, this chapter is closed. I would presume that with Dr. Farooq's release, there is a closure to that case," she said.

But speaking recently in Washington, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Non Proliferation, Andrew Semmel, said Washington still considers the issue open and ongoing.

"No, I don't think the case is closed, no," he said.

Semmel said U.S. officials are engaged in what he described as a "continuous, deep-seated, serious effort" to unravel the AQ Khan network. But, he added that there are many aspects of the case that even he is not privy to because nearly all of the U.S investigations are being handled through what he called "intelligence channels."

"So, in a sense, the information is sensitive. It's not out in the public and shouldn't be out in the public," he explained.

The U.S. official added, though, that an independent description of how sensitive this issue is for Washington is, in his words, "not inaccurate." He was referring to comments made by Daryl Kimball, of the non-profit Arms Control Association.

"My personal hunch is that there are some conflicts in U.S. policy that are leading to this standoff," he noted. "That is, we don't want to make life too tough for Pervez Musharraf. But we want to get information about the AQ Khan network at the same time."

Kimball said getting more information about the Khan network involves directly questioning A.Q. Khan and other top figures, something the Pakistani government has prohibited. Islamabad has pardoned Khan, who remains under house arrest in the Pakistani capital.

Meanwhile, Kimball says the most urgent matter requiring Khan's input is what nuclear technology the network provided to Iran. Specifically, he raised the issue of Iran acquiring a piece of equipment known as a centrifuge, which has compartments that spin around a central axis to separate nuclear materials.

"One of the outstanding questions that Mohamed el Baradei, the IAEA director general, has is whether P-2 centrifuges, more advanced centrifuges, were passed on to Iran," he said. "If so, then the timeline for the ability to produce highly-enriched uranium could be shorter."

The AQ Khan network provided nuclear technology to Libya, a country that has abandoned its nuclear program. The network also is believed to have provided material and know-how to North Korea, another country Washington accuses of having a nuclear weapons program.

Congressman Ed Royce recently chaired a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on the nuclear black market run by AQ Khan. He blamed the Pakistani government for complicity in the Khan case, and urged the U.S. government to get tougher on Islamabad.

"Pakistan receives some $700 million annually in U.S. aid," said Mr. Royce. "President Bush has designated Pakistan a major non-NATO ally. Given this support, the grave consequences of Khan's acts, and his relevancy to the Iranian and North Korean crises of today, the U.S. and the international community should expect more from Pakistan's government."

The congressmen heard testimony from outside experts, including independent consultant Leonard Weiss, who said it is crucial that investigators find out more about Khan's activities in other countries.

"It is known that he and his associates visited Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Sudan," said Mr. Weiss. "What did Khan do there? We need to know, and in detail."

He added that he and many other independent observers do not believe the Khan network has been completely or effectively shut down.

"We don't really know to what extent the Khan network has been rolled up, to what extent new additions to the network have been made, and whether increased surveillance of Pakistani nuclear activity is making much of a difference," he noted.

Author Andrew Koch, former Washington bureau chief for Jane's Defense Weekly, adds that he thinks many of the network participants were involved for financial, not geopolitical, reasons. He adds that many of them are still there, willing and able to sell to whoever has enough money.