Nawaz Sharif was quoted by a local news agency as saying that Pakistan is prepared to use the weapon against India. Addressing a rally in Neela Butt, inside the disputed part of Kashmir, Mr Sharif warned that an attack on Kashmir might trigger a nuclear war.
'Both Pakistan and India have atomic bombs,' Mr Sharif reportedly said. Later in the speech he added: 'I confirm that Pakistan possesses an atomic bomb.' Mr Sharif served as Prime Minister for 30 months before he was ousted by Benazir Bhutto in last October's elections.
The claim was immediately denied in Islamabad. A Foreign Ministry official restated the government position that it had acquired the capability to make nuclear weapons but had taken a policy decision not to do so and restricted the use of nuclear technology to peaceful purposes.
The former prime minister's statement reflected rivalry and tension within Pakistan's political establishment over the Kashmir issue, but it could also create international repercussions, diplomats said last night.
'While he was Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif would have been kept informed of the nuclear programme by the President and the head of the armed forces,' said a diplomat familiar with the issue. 'If, therefore, he has been quoted correctly his statement is highly irresponsible. It would clearly have an effect on relations between the major powers and Pakistan.'
German officials said this week that some plutonium smuggled out of the former Soviet Union may have been destined for Pakistan. Neither India nor Pakistan is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both countries resisted an initiative by the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, this year to restrict their weapons programmes.
It is thought that Mr Sharif's aggressive remarks are a riposte to a statement made last week in Delhi by the Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, in which he revived Delhi's claim to a portion of the disputed Kashmir region held by Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan hold chunks of Kashmir, and have gone to war over it twice since the 1947 partition of Muslim Pakistan from India.
India admits only that it has the capability to make its own nuclear weapons, but Western military experts in Delhi claim that with relations between India and Pakistan so tense over the past few years, both have clandestinely assembled atomic arsenals. The Clinton administration has marked the Indian sub-continent as one of the flashpoints in the world where a nuclear war might break out.
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