ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s army chief dismissed on Friday fears that the country’s nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants as the military test fired a nuclear-capable missile.
Pakistan is a staunch ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism but deteriorating security and political turmoil has raised international concern about the safety of its nuclear weapons.
General Ashfaq Kayani, who became army chief in November when Pervez Musharraf stepped down to become a civilian president, rejected the worry as “unrealistic”.
Speaking at the test-firing of a medium-range Shaheen-1 (Hatf-IV) ballistic missile, he said such concerns were based on a “lack of understanding of Pakistan’s command and control mechanisms”.
“He said the Pakistani armed forces were a highly professional, motivated and well-trained force and were capable of safeguarding and securing nuclear assets against all categories of threat,” the military said in a statement.
Pakistan carried out nuclear tests in May 1998, days after its old rival India conducted tests.
Kayani said Pakistan had developed a strong nuclear deterrence capability but it did not harbor aggressive designs against anyone.
“Pakistan’s nuclear capability was solely for the purpose of deterring all types of aggression,” he was cited as saying.
Pakistan has seen a rise in militant violence since the middle of last year and has been rocked by political turmoil at the same time over opposition to Musharraf’s bid to stay on as president.
The assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a December27 attack blamed on al Qaeda-linked militants highlighted worry about the country’s prospects.
Some U.S. nuclear experts and politicians raised fresh concern about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and facilities.
But despite such concern, Washington believes Pakistan’s arsenal remains secure. U.S. military and defense officials say the weapons are safely under Pakistani military control.
Several U.S. lawmakers visited Pakistan recently and met officials of the military’s Strategic Plans Division, which oversees the nuclear arsenal.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, told reporters he had been assured that there was no danger of the Muslim nation’s weapons falling into the hands of militants.
Kayani said the creation of “irresponsible alarm by certain quarters” was counter-productive, the military said. It did not elaborate.
The Shaheen-1 missile, which can travel up to 700 km (435 miles), is routinely fired for training purposes.
Pakistan and India, which have fought thee wars since 1947 and nearly went to war a fourth time in 2002, regularly carry out missile tests despite a peace process they launched in early 2004. They inform each other of such tests in advance.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani