Pakistan's Foreign Ministry insisted yesterday that its nuclear proliferation case was closed, a day after the disgraced architect of its atomic programme claimed the army under President Pervez Musharraf helped spread the technology.
Nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan told The Associated Press on Friday that Pakistan's army supervised a 2000 shipment of used P-1 centrifuges to North Korea. It must have been sent with the approval of Musharraf, the then-army chief who took power in a 1999 coup, Khan alleged.
"It was a North Korean plane, and the army had complete knowledge about it and the equipment," Khan said. "It must have gone with his (Musharraf's) consent."
The comments caused a stir in Pakistani media, and newspapers played the story prominently on their front pages Saturday. Mohammad Sadiq, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, offered only limited comment, however.
"The nuclear proliferation issue is a closed case," Sadiq said, reiterating a longtime Pakistani stance. "We do not think that a debate is required on it."
Pakistan has repeatedly denied that its army or government knew about Khan's proliferation activities. Still, Khan's allegations matches expert assessments that running such a network would have been very difficult without some involvement from Pakistan's security apparatus.
Musharraf's spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, rejected Khan's claims. "I can say with full confidence that it is all lies and false statements," he said.
Khan has been agitating for an end to his virtual house arrest and backed off his 2004 confession that he was solely responsible for spreading nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
In a speech Friday, Musharraf made no mention of Khan's allegations, but said he would not quit the presidency as political opponents have been demanding.
The army spokesman declined to respond Friday and could not immediately be reached Saturday.
Khan is regarded as a hero by many in Pakistan for his key role in giving it the Islamic world's first nuclear bomb in 1998, seen as a deterrent against historic archrival India.
After his 2004 confession and a televised statement of contrition, Khan was pardoned by Musharraf but has effectively been kept under house arrest at his spacious villa in Islamabad.
Since a new civilian government took power after February elections, eclipsing Musharraf, the retired scientist has increasingly spoken out in the media. He had not previously implicated anyone or explicitly said that the army was aware of nuclear shipments.
His comments Friday appeared to stem from his growing frustration over the restrictions on his movements. Khan and his wife have appointed an attorney to petition the Islamabad High Court for an end to his detention.
Khan said he took sole responsibility for the nuclear proliferation because he had been persuaded that it was in the national interest. Khan said that in return he had been promised complete freedom, but "those promises were not honoured."
Khan's proliferation activities are alleged to have begun in the late 1980s.
In his autobiography, "In the Line of Fire," Musharraf says that in 1999, a year after becoming army chief, he became suspicious of Khan and questioned him over reports that North Korean nuclear experts had arrived at his laboratories for secret briefings on centrifuges. Khan denied it, according to Musharraf.
Musharraf recounts authorizing a raid on a charter aircraft going to North Korea for conventional missiles after receiving reports it would be carrying some "irregular" cargo on Khan's behalf. Khan's people were tipped off before the raid and never loaded the cargo, Musharraf wrote. It was not clear if he was referring to the same shipment as Khan.
Musharraf's suspicions over Khan prompted him to remove the scientist in March 2001 from his position as head of Khan Research Laboratories, Pakistan's main nuclear lab named after him.
Pakistan says it has taken extra steps to tighten control of its nuclear assets since Khan's network was uncovered in late 2003. But Khan's bald accusation that the military establishment was in the know adds to widespread skepticism that he could have exported nuclear technology under the radar of Pakistan's pervasive security apparatus.
Political and military analyst Talat Masood said it made sense that the effort was coordinated by more than one person.
"If the requirement of an aircraft was there, the requirement of dealing with another country was there, it's not just one man who could have done it," Masood said. "Whether they were doing it individually or collectively or as a state policy or informally that needs to be determined."
Pakistan has refused to let outsiders question Khan, including from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, but says it has shared the findings of its own questioning of Khan.