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World News

Pakistan seeks to allay fears on nuclear security

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan has boosted security at nuclear facilities but there is no chance of Islamist militants getting their hands on atomic weapons, the official in charge of the country’s strategic arsenal said on Saturday.

“We are capable of thwarting all types of threats, whether these be insider, outsider, or a combination,” Retired Lieutenant-General Khalid Kidwai told foreign journalists.

He said security was stepped up after militants began more actively targeting the military in a wave of suicide attacks in the past year, but there was no specific threat.

“The state of alertness has gone up,” said Kidwai, who remained director-general of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) despite retiring from the army last October.

However, no conspiracy or plot related to nuclear facilities had ever been uncovered, he said, although al Qaeda in the past had shown interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Kidwai, echoing President Pervez Musharraf in Europe this week, dismissed any idea of an “extremist takeover” of either Pakistan’s government or its nuclear weapons.

“There is no conceivable scenario, political or violent in which Pakistan will fall to the extremist of the al Qaeda or Taliban type,” Kidwai said in the briefing given at the SPD offices in Rawalpindi, an army town near Islamabad.

Pakistan has launched a public relations offensive to counter what it regards as scaremongering over the security of its nuclear weapons because of threats from al Qaeda and its allies, and the political uncertainty gripping the country.

“We have instituted command and control structures and security measures in a manner so as to make these foolproof,” said Kidwai, who gave three similar presentations to foreign diplomats and Pakistani media in recent months.

FEARS FOR FUTURE

Fears for Pakistan’s future have grown since the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27 after an election rally. The election has been put off until February 18.

Kidwai said the idea that militant forces could be democratically voted into power was an impossible proposition, as political parties were predominantly moderate.

He also said fears of a breakdown in law and order or violent revolution were exaggerated, and the possibility of extremists taking over the military was difficult to imagine.

Kidwai noted that of 700 to 800 nuclear security incidents reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, most had occurred in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

He said none were reported in Pakistan or, he believed, in India.

Pakistan and India became nuclear-armed in 1998, and the world has shuddered at the thought of a conflict between the South Asian neighbours, who have already fought three wars.

Kidwai said neither country was on a hair-trigger. Pakistan’s controls were such that orders to abort could be given at the last second. Even if a rogue pilot were to fire a missile he would not have the code to arm the warhead, he said.

Pakistan has 10,000 soldiers guarding its facilities and the SPD has its own independent intelligence section.

Kidwai said there was an exhaustive vetting process, involving political, moral and financial checks and psychological testing for 10,000 staff working in nuclear facilities, and security monitors kept close tabs on 2,000 scientists working in ultra-sensitive areas.

Editing by Bill Tarrant

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