Revered founder of Pakistan's nuclear program fired

Sunday, February 1, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In the first action from Pakistan's probe into allegations of nuclear proliferation, the government on Saturday fired the revered founder of the country's atomic program from his job as a top adviser and confined him to his home.

The moves against Abdul Qadeer Khan -- considered a national hero for giving Pakistan its nuclear deterrent against India and the Islamic world its first atomic bomb -- came as investigators narrow their pursuit of nuclear scientists' black market ties to Iran and Libya.

Opposition Islamic parties called the action against Khan baseless and said they would take to the streets in protest against what they labeled yet another case of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf caving in to the West.

Khan hasn't been placed under arrest, but authorities have told him to remain at his Islamabad home for security reasons and increased security around him, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said. Six other scientists and security officials also have been detained.

It wasn't immediately clear if Khan could face criminal charges, or whether other scientists or military officers from Khan Research Laboratories -- the heart of its nuclear program, renamed for Khan in 1981 -- would face punishment.

Khan was dismissed as a scientific adviser to the prime minister "in the background of the investigations into alleged acts of nuclear proliferation by a few individuals and to facilitate those investigations in a free and objective manner," the government said in a statement.

At a meeting Saturday of Pakistan's National Command Authority, which controls the country's nuclear assets and is chaired by Musharraf, the military said officials were informed the investigation "was nearly concluded and appropriate action will be taken against those found guilty."

Officials have said Khan and a top aide -- Mohammed Farooq, one of those detained -- have failed to account for money in personal bank accounts. Scientists at the lab allegedly used the same black market contacts who helped them build Pakistan's nuclear program to profit by spreading the technology to other countries.

Khan and Farooq have told investigators they didn't supply any technology to Iran and Libya, and Khan has maintained he did nothing to damage the interests of Pakistan, officials have said.

Small protests in recent days have spread across the country against the detention of the scientists. Families pleading for information on their arrested relatives have found a sympathetic ear in Islamic parties -- eager to use the issue to increase pressure on Musharraf.

Those parties have repeatedly labeled Musharraf as a patsy for the West, and he has drawn harsh domestic opposition for joining the U.S.-led war on terror. Musharraf was targeted in two assassination attempts in December blamed on Islamic extremists -- possibly helped by al-Qaida.

Musharraf "has made another scapegoat to please America. He is now after the national heroes," Ameer-ul Azeem, a spokesman for Jamaat-e-Islami party, said of Khan's dismissal. "The time has come for giving a big call (for protest) against the government," he said, declining to give details on future demonstrations.

The Pakistani government has focused its probe on individuals, and asserted there was no high-level government or military involvement in any decision to share nuclear secrets.

On Saturday, the military reiterated the nuclear program was only intended to deter Pakistan's enemies, saying in a statement that "it would never be in the national interest to share this technology in whatever form with any other country."

Khan had held the adviser position, a Cabinet-level post, since 2001 when he retired as head of the nuclear lab.

Analysts have said simply removing Khan as an adviser could be a way to avoid a domestic backlash and a public trial, but that it might also be viewed as too soft a step by the international community -- which has long suspected Pakistan of spreading its nuclear technology around the world.

Pakistan, which had repeatedly denied allegations of proliferation, began its investigation in November after revelations by Tehran to International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Born in present-day India in 1935, Khan emigrated to Pakistan in 1952, five years after its partition from India, He earned a doctorate in metallurgy in Belgium, and has been awarded Pakistan's highest civilian award twice -- the only person so honored.

Khan worked in the Netherlands at a subsidiary of the British-German-Dutch nuclear conglomerate URENCO in 1972-76 before returning home to start Pakistan's nuclear program, which tested its first nuclear device in 1998.

In 1983, a Dutch court convicted Khan in absentia of stealing confidential material from URENCO and sentenced him to four years in prison. He denied the charge and the conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

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