Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani yesterday dismissed "unrealistic" international fears that the country's nuclear weapons could fall into extremist hands, an army statement said.
Speaking after the launch of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile during an army exercise, Kayani rejected "irresponsible" speculation that Pakistan's warheads could be at risk because of the political turmoil in the country.
Pakistan has been convulsed by unrest since the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last month, and there has been mounting concern among its Western allies about the security of its atomic assets.
Kayani however told troops after yesterday's exercise that the Pakistani military was "capable of safeguarding and securing nuclear assets against all categories of threat," the military statement said.
"Referring to international concerns regarding speculative scenarios, he dismissed such concerns as unrealistic and based on a lack of understanding of Pakistan's command and control mechanisms," it said.
"He stressed that creating irresponsible alarm by certain quarters would be counter-productive," the statement said.
The comments are a rare foray into international politics by the reclusive Kayani, who took over as chief of army staff from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in November. Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999.
Kayani is reported to have ordered the army to stay out of politics, but in Pakistan, which has spent more than half its existence under military rule, eyes are always on the head of the armed forces.
His statement closely follows the line of Musharraf's comments on Pakistan's nuclear weapons during a week-long tour of Europe.
Musharraf said in Paris on Tuesday that the only way for militants to gain access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal would be if al-Qaeda or the Taliban "defeated the Pakistani army entirely" or if Islamist groups won the country's general elections next month.
"There is a zero percent chance of either one of them," Musharraf said. "They [the weapons] cannot fall into any wrong hands."
Yesterday, the army said it had successfully fired a medium-range Shaheen-1 (Hatf IV) ballistic missile at the end of an annual training session by the army's strategic force command.
The locally developed missile, which has a range of 700km and is capable of carrying nuclear weapons, is routinely fired during training exercises.
Kayani congratulated the officers and scientists "on achieving high standards of training and excellent results," the army statement said.
Pakistan and its regional rival India make frequent missile test launches. The two countries have fought three wars since 1947 and carried out tit-for-tat nuclear test detonations in 1998.