Pakistan eases fears by sharing nuclear secrets

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·         Briefings to Western diplomats meant to ‘reassure’ them of safety measures.

Diplomats say nukes reside in a safe, ‘ring-fenced’ part of military.

Senior civil and military officials are sharing tightly-held information about the country’s nuclear arms programme with Western countries in an effort to allay fears about the security of weapons in the face of a Taliban advance, a Financial Times (FT) report said on Thursday.

The decision highlights global concerns about the safety of up to 100 atom bombs in Pakistan’s possession, as the Taliban advanced last week to within 100km of Islamabad.

A senior Western envoy in Islamabad said diplomats had been assured about the security in place for the weapons systems and also their distance from Taliban-held territory.

The FT report said the Pakistani officials presented this as an action to satisfy the West that its weapons would not fall into Taliban hands. “We have renewed our pledge to keep our nuclear weapons safe,” said an official. The briefings were meant to be reassuring to the international community in regard to safety measures.

The Pakistan Army said this week it had halted the latest Taliban incursion in Buner district of Malakand division, 100km north-west of Islamabad, after two days of fighting.

“We have successfully blocked Taliban advances and confined them just to a pocket,” said Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

The Pakistan army has been accused in the West of failing to challenge the Taliban.

According to the FT report, Western diplomats have said a Taliban advance on Islamabad threatened to bring them close to the country’s nuclear installations. They doubted the Taliban were capable of overwhelming heavily protected facilities, it added.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described, over the weekend, the toppling of the government and capture of nuclear weapons as “unthinkable”.

Nukes ‘ring-fenced’: The report quoted Western diplomats as saying the nuclear programme resides in a “ring-fenced” part of the military under the command of a well-respected general and protected from rogue elements within the army that might seek to capture a weapon. But although security improvements have been made, Pakistan has still to comply with the high levels recommended to it, it added.

Security worries date back to 2004, when the proliferation network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, founder of the country’s nuclear programme, came to light.

One danger identified by the international community was that one of his scientists might help extremists gain a ‘dirty bomb’. Since then, the Pakistani military has tightened monitoring of individual scientists and has introduced new inventory systems in order to track the bomb components.

President Asif Ali Zardari had earlier ruled out the possibility of the country’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban.

“I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is under safe hands,” he had said.

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