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Questions Linger About Pakistan Alleged Transfers of Nuclear Technology - 2004-01-07

Pakistan is strongly denying a published report alleging it supplied nuclear weapons technology to Libya. But nearly six years after Islamabad tested its own nuclear device, whether the South Asian nation is honoring a pledge to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons remains a major issue.

The New York Times quotes unnamed U.S. officials and other Western experts as saying Pakistan supplied Libya with centrifuge design technology that enabled Tripoli to advance its nuclear weapons program. While they say there is no evidence the Pakistani government knew about the alleged transfers to Libya, the issue raises concerns that technology needed to make a nuclear bomb could still be passing from Pakistan into the hands of rogue states or even terrorist groups. Pakistan has already been implicated in helping both Iran and North Korea advance their nuclear programs.

A spokesman for the Pakistani government strongly denies nuclear transfers to Libya, calling the allegations absolutely false. In an exchange with reporters, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he does not have enough information to comment on the matter, which he said the Pakistani government continues to investigate.

"I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions with President Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders and as you know, President Musharraf has announced that he will be looking into it himself, very thoroughly," he said.

The issue of whether Pakistan has been the source of nuclear know-how for countries the United States considers rogue states is of deep concern to the Bush administration, given its effort to combat nuclear weapons proliferation around the world. Libya last month renounced nuclear weapons and pledged to dismantle its emerging program. Even so, this alleged transfer of nuclear technology raises new questions about whether President Pervez Musharraf has kept a promise he made to the United States, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, to work to stop the transfer of nuclear components.

"We know that there have been cases where individuals in Pakistan have worked in these areas and we have called it to the attention of the Pakistanis in the past and I'm very pleased now that President Musharraf is aggressively moving to investigate all that," said Mr. Powell.

Pakistan has acknowledged its scientists may have sold nuclear technology on their own, motivated by personal profit. Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley says one scientist at the center of those suspicions is Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered the father of the country's nuclear program.

"He has probably the best Rolodex in the world about telling other people where they can go to do a similar project and end up with a nuclear weapon of their own, although it takes a lot of time and a lot of money," he said.

And Mr. Oakley thinks President Musharraf needs to do more to ensure Pakistan's nuclear technology remains in safe hands. "I'm sure what we're telling Pakistan is we want to make sure you do have even tighter controls over your own nuclear program and for the first time, you get to the bottom of what A.Q. Khan and his people have been doing, which has not happened before," he said.

Through associates, A.Q. Khan denies involvement in helping other countries acquire atomic weapons. U.S. officials will not comment on the record about his alleged activities. But a White House spokesman says it's always difficult to control the activities of what he terms rogue individuals whose motives are personal gain.