Pakistan holds scientists over sale of nuclear secrets

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Pakistan has widened its investigation into the country's biggest nuclear weapons laboratory amid allegations that nuclear secrets have been sold to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Officials said yesterday that up to seven scientists at the Khan Research Laboratories were taken in for "debriefing", including Islam-ul Haq, who was a director. He was picked up as he was dining on Saturday evening at the home of Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's "father of the bomb".

Dr Khan, a national hero for leading research that led to the Islamic world's first nuclear bomb in 1998, was interrogated last month after questions were raised by the UN nuclear watchdog. Pakistan has denied any official role in proliferating nuclear technology, but President Pervez Musharraf told parliament at the weekend that the country must show that it is a responsible power.

Pakistan is considered America's ally in its war on terrorism, but the nuclear-armed nation was recently denounced in the US Congress for selling technology to pariah states. The arrest at Denver International Airport on 2 January of the wealthy Israeli businessman Asher Karni, for trying to illegally export detonators allegedly destined for Pakistan, has increased speculation about the country's role in the world's nuclear black market.

Mr Karni 50, who was detained while on a skiing holiday, is to appear in court this week accused of flouting US export restrictions to Pakistan. He runs Top-Cape Technology in Cape Town, South Africa, which trades in military electronic gear and allegedly sold a Pakistani firm 200 hi-tech electronic switches capable of detonating a nuclear device.

A former Pakistani official said: "Pakistan has always acquired its nuclear technology on the sly. There has to be deniability. That's why they use these kinds of murky businessmen - if it ever came out that our government was involved in trying to break US laws like this, it would be very embarrassing all round."

Authorities in Islamabad, under pressure from Washington, are stepping up efforts to unmask the people behind the nuclear bazaar. The Foreign Ministry has admitted the possibility that individuals at the Khan Research Laboratories and the Atomic Energy Commission of Pakistan may have been tempted to sell nuclear technology out of greed or shared ideologies.

Two of Pakistan's atomic scientists were also interrogated last month after Iran said that the centrifuge design it used was identical to the Pakistani model.

Meanwhile, Pakistani agents raided an apartment complex in Karachi yesterday and arrested seven suspected members of the terrorist group al-Qa'ida. Grenades, guns, ammunition and maps of Pakistan and Afghanistan were seized.