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Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 6 News List

US changes its tune over Pakistan's nuclear arms

ATOMIC TILT Washington has warmed to the idea of helping the Islamic nation manage its nuclear program and is offering advice on their stockpiles


Concerned that Osama bin Laden is seeking to get his hands on nuclear weapons, the United States has dropped its punitive measures against Pakistan's nuclear program and is now offering to advise the country on securing its stockpile.

The US spent a decade sanctioning Pakistan for building nuclear weapons, but that policy effectively changed with the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the US.

The US now views Pakistan as an essential ally in the war against terrorism. The US wants to cooperate with Pakistan on nuclear issues to ensure that no nuclear material leaks to bin Laden's al-Qaeda network or comes under the control of Islamic fundamentalists inside Pakistan.

US President George W. Bush lifted economic sanctions originally imposed in 1990 by his father. And when Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived last month, he went a step further, proposing that the US provide training for Pakistan's nuclear facilities.

"During his visit, Colin Powell offered us that kind of support, to train Pakistanis in America on the safeguarding of nuclear installations," said Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar.

Asked if Pakistan had accepted, Sattar responded, "Who would refuse?"

Neither Pakistan nor the US has released details. But the offer is believed to include training on everything from preventing accidents at civilian power plants to guarding against the theft of weapons-grade uranium, said Rifaat Hussain, head of the department of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Powell, speaking Wednesday in Washington, said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf "understands the importance of ensuring that all elements of his nuclear program are safe and secure."

Musharraf "knows that if he needs any technical assistance on how to improve that security level, we would be more than willing to help in any way that we can," Powell added.

The shift in US policy does not mean American concerns about Pakistan's nuclear program have eased. If anything, the US may be more worried than ever about an arsenal that includes an estimated 20 to 30 warheads. Pakistan has never said how many weapons it has.

The Americans have three big concerns about Pakistani nuclear weapons: the spread of nuclear material to terrorist groups, the prospect of Islamic fundamentalists taking power in Pakistan and the fear of a nuclear war between Pakistan and archrival India.

How serious is each threat?

-- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that bin Laden's network has been trying for years to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Rumsfeld named no countries. However, speculation has focused on Pakistan, which until the Sept. 11 attack had backed Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement, which in turn has harbored bin Laden.

Politics are turbulent in Pakistan, but the country has kept a tight lid on nuclear materials and technology since it launched the program in the mid-1970s, noted Hussain, the analyst.

He said Pakistan is proud of being the only Islamic country to build nuclear bombs and has rebuffed efforts by other Islamic countries, including Iran and Libya, to acquire technology and material.

-- Pakistan's history of military coups has raised fears that Islamic fundamentalists in the officer corps could someday seize power, thereby gaining control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

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