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US defends pardon of nuclear trafficker
Updated: 2004-02-06 15:46

The United States on Thursday strongly defended Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, despite his pardon of a disgraced scientist who sold nuclear secrets to Libya and members of U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Reflecting a balancing act between its usual aggressive stance on punishing proliferation and its firm support for Musharraf -- a key ally in the U.S. anti-terror war -- the White House said Pakistan has proved its intent through action.

"This proliferation network is no longer. The actions of Pakistan have broken up this network," spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One enroute back from an event in South Carolina, where Bush gave a speech.

He said Musharraf provided assurances that his government itself was not involved in any kind of proliferation activity and "we value those assurances and those actions."

McClellan deflected questions about why Pakistan, which tested a nuclear weapon in 1998, should not be forced to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and submit to rigorous international inspections like other countries.

"All countries should take steps to confront proliferation. Pakistan is doing that by their actions. Pakistan is acting to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction technology," McClellan said.

After confessing to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and DPRK and absolving Pakistan's military and government of blame, top nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was pardoned by Musharraf in an apparent effort to lay the explosive controversy to rest.


But many Pakistanis believe Musharraf and top military officers were complicit in the illicit nuclear transfers.

Meanwhile, criticism of Bush is mounting for going along with what some Americans also consider a "charade."

The administration seems to believe that accepting the Khan pardon is a "political necessity" because Musharraf has been a loyal ally in the anti-terror war and is under tremendous pressure from opponents, including two recent assassination attacks, said David Albright, who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

But this could "backfire" because scientists involved in the Pakistani program may decide there is little to lose by going out and making money selling nuclear secrets, he said.

"Musharraf should have been more aggressive about bringing some of them to trial," Albright added.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone charged that Musharraf "likely knew that the (nuclear) exchanges took place and is not being honest about his connection" to Khan's activities.

In a statement to the U.S. Congress, the New Jersey Democrat urged Bush to reimpose sanctions on U.S. aid to Pakistan lifted after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

A senior U.S. official said Washington would study whether sanctions were warranted but noted this is a lengthy process.

Bush seems unlikely to re-impose sanctions. But if Congress forced him to act, it could affect millions of dollars. Bush's new fiscal year 2005 budget proposes $700 million for Pakistan, up from $395 million in 2004, congressional sources said.

A number of countries extending from Europe, Asia and beyond have been implicated in a nuclear weapons black market of middlemen and parts producers linked to Khan and Washington expects all countries to crack down on illicit technology transfers within their borders, U.S. officials said.

They said the middlemen who helped Iran, DPRK and Libya acquire sensitive nuclear technology operated in Germany, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Dubai, Switzerland, South Africa -- and possibly other states as yet undisclosed.

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