Father of Pakistan bomb denies passing on secrets

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The founder of Pakistan's nuclear bomb is bristling with indignation. After four years of enforced silence, the scientist described by the CIA as "at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden" and on a Time magazine cover as the "merchant of menace", is finally getting a chance to fight back.

The voice is a little faint but his mind is clearly still razor-sharp. Now aged 72 and suffering from prostate cancer, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, characterised as a Dr Strangelove figure by critics but regarded as a hero by most of his fellow Pakistanis, wants to set the record straight. A bookshelf-worth of titles have painted him as a greedy pedlar of nuclear technology to some of the world's most dangerous regimes.

"They [the allegations] are bullshit and concoctions," said Dr Khan from his villa in one of Islamabad's leafiest residential areas, where he remains under house arrest. "Now I have become the black sheep."

Dr Khan spearheaded Pakistan's clandestine nuclear programme from its inception in the mid-70s until he was forced to make a humiliating confession about his proliferation activities on national TV in 2004 under huge pressure from Washington.

In a telephone interview, Dr Khan said the confession had been made "in the national interest" but denied its contents were true. Mysteriously, he said that others "got away scot-free" as a result of him taking all the blame. Experts believe that he worked in collaboration with the Pakistan army.

Dr Khan stands accused of helping Iran, Libya and North Korea establish secret nuclear weapons programmes, a legacy the world community is still struggling to deal with today in the case of Iran and North Korea.

Dr Khan admitted helping Libya and Iran but insisted his aid was limited to pointing these countries in the direction of suppliers. He flatly denied providing any assistance to Pyongyang but said that Pakistan had acquired missile technology, for nuclear bombs, from North Korea.

He said he used companies he knew from his days working in the nuclear industry in Europe as suppliers when he shifted back to Pakistan. The businesses, based in Europe's most advanced economies – including the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Holland – provided the Pakistani programme with all it needed, he said. This was done openly in the 1970s; later the trade went underground, partly funnelled through subsidiaries of European companies operating from apartheid-era South Africa.

"When Iran and Libya wanted to do their programme, they asked our advice. We said 'okay, these are the suppliers, who provide all'. This was very small advice," said Dr Khan.

"I advised them. What's wrong with it? I became the 'ringleader' of the network. But the suppliers were there already for 20 years."

Dr Khan said he had been to North Korea twice and insisted that the reclusive communist state did not need any help from Pakistan, which has a nuclear programme based on uranium enrichment rather than the alternative plutonium technology.

"The North Korean programme is totally based on reactor reprocessing plutonium. They had mastered this technology even before we started."

According to other accounts, North Korea later sought to also acquire uranium technology by swapping its missile systems for Pakistan's know-how. A recent book even claims that the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was involved in the barter arrangement during a trip to Pyongyang.

Dr Khan's protestations of innocence do not impress Western experts, however. David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector, who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said: "He's just lying, the facts are established."

In the last couple of weeks, the conditions of Dr Khan's detention have been relaxed – with unofficial phone contact tolerated, a few visitors allowed and one brief outing. Some members of the new coalition government have even called for him to be freed.

Dr Khan himself is in no doubt why he and Pakistan have been singled out for international condemnation.

"Muslims were the only religion which threatened the Western civilisation. They hate Muslims, they hate Islamic culture. Every Muslim is a terrorist.

"The West will never forgive you. I broke their monopoly. I am the black sheep for them."

Pakistan and the bomb

In May 1998, Pakistan and India shocked the world by carrying out a series of tit- for-tat nuclear tests, raising the spectre of nuclear conflict between the two neighbours. Pakistan is thought to have produced enough highly enriched uranium fuel for up to 55 weapons, although it claims the weapons are not assembled. In addition to uranium enrichment at the AQ Khan Kahuta facility, Pakistan also developed plutonium production at the Khusabresearch reactor withChinese assistance atJoharabad in the 1990s. According to commercial satellite imagery, Pakistan appears to be building a third production reactor at the site. Experts say it could be intended to improve the quality of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and build a new generation of more powerful weapons. Pakistan is estimated to have produced a small amount of weapons-grade plutonium for up to five nuclear weapons.

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