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A Q Khan fall guy for Musharraf: Benazir

By Shyam Bhatia in London
March 05, 2004 12:09 IST
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Jihadi elements colluding with military dictator General Pervez Musharraf are responsible for trying to export nuclear technology, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto told in an exclusive interview.

She rejected assertions that Dr A Q Khan, who has taken the blame for proliferating nuclear technology to countries like Libya, Iran and North Korea, had acted independently.

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"I think Khan got a pittance of the money. He couldn't even leave the country without somebody watching everything he did and to accept that Khan ran an international operation -- that Israeli businessmen were involved, Indian businessmen were involved; that parts were coming from South Africa and Malaysia without anyone knowing -- is unbelievable," she said.

"Khan was asked to fall on the sword in the name of the national interest, which means cover up for Musharraf."

Bhutto, who now lives in exile fearing arrest if she returns home, admitted that Pakistan had operational nuclear weapons in 1989, nearly a decade before it actually conducted the tests.

"Not only a stockpile but bomb components existed. It was only a question that we put them together or did not put them together. Not putting together the bomb components meant a time lag, which the West said gave it confidence that nothing would be done impetuously," she said.

By 1988, uranium "enrichment was at 93%. We decided about proliferation and decided it was important first to achieve a certain level. So they did a cold test around January 1989," she said. "I don't know how cold tests are done. But they said before I gave any guarantees to the West, I must have a cold test to see if everything works. Between January and March [1989] the cold tests were done. "

By then, "there was a sense of paranoia that our sites would be blasted out. Everyone was concerned. The army was concerned, the president was concerned, the Pressler amendment was there. The Soviets were withdrawing [from Afghanistan] by February. There was concern that as soon as the Soviets withdrew we would no longer be a frontline state in the fight against Communism. And that is when our nuclear installations could come under attack. So we had a very narrow timeframe during which we could actually negotiate to satisfy international concerns," she said.

"I can say there was a great deal of insecurity. At the same time having nuclear status was a matter of security for Pakistanis. Sadly, though it was a weapon of mass destruction, it was a matter of pride because people felt we were as good as India. India had developed one; we had developed one. If their scientists are good, our scientists are equally good."

Bhutto, prime minister between 1988 and 1990 and 1993 and 1996, also took credit for introducing a policy of nuclear restraint that she says was covertly undermined by jihadi elements.

"In return for our restraint the Americans agreed to suspend the Pressler Amendment and give us the aid. $4.6 billion was the quid pro quo, whereas under Zia (then Pakistan president Zia-ul Haq) we got less, we got $4.2 billion for fighting the Soviets. But the Soviets were gone and we get $4.6 billion and, instead of getting 20 or 40 F-16s that we got under Zia, we got 60 F-16s."

But "They weren't delivered because my government got overthrown in 1990 and the Americans alleged we had crossed the line and that we had gone back to 90 percent uranium enrichment."

She also disclosed that in 1990, impoverished Soviet scientists tried to sell enriched uranium to Pakistan. By rejecting their offer, she may have "inadvertently" alerted vested interests in Pakistan to the existence of an international nuclear black market, she said.

"They approached the government, parliamentarians, so they come and tell me, 'We don't have to worry if we can't make uranium, we can buy uranium. I thought it was a trap set up by intelligence. So I sent them to the ISI to investigate. Unfortunately, if it was not a trap, I introduced the ISI to the network."

As for A Q Khan, she said, "I first came across him in 1988 when he came to see me with Munir (Munir Ahmad Khan, head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission). They seemed like government servants ready to carry out government orders. I think it was after Nawaz Sharif detonated the nuclear devices that A Q became Father of the Nuclear Bomb. But actually everything was done before."

However, on the proliferation admitted by Khan, she said "I suspect it was Musharraf because the time lag I am looking at both Libya and North Korea were squarely under Musharraf's watch as chief of army staff and chief executive of Pakistan."

Complete Coverage: Pakistan's nuclear bazaar

Admitting attempts by the military and the ISI to keep her in the dark over nuclear developments during her tenures, she said. "What I have read is that it went on in 1987 under Zia, but actually the cooperation started after my dismissal in 1990 and ended in 1993 or 1994 after I became prime minister (for a second time)."

"In February 2000 Musharraf went to Libya. In July 2000 Musharraf's commerce minister and friend took out a full-page ad offering nuclear-related products for sale," she pointed out.

As for North Korea, "They gave us missile technology, whatever they had developed, in return for cash. We paid them in installments because we also had foreign exchange to keep in mind for other things. We were buying tanks and planes, all sorts of things."

Describing herself as the "the mother of missile technology" in Pakistan, she said "my father (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto) was the father of the nuclear thing. They are against Benazir because of corruption, but Qadeer Khan can keep the hundreds of millions he made through corruption. He is still a hero because he helped with the nuclear and missile programs.

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Shyam Bhatia in London