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Do Taliban Have Nuke Secrets?
U.S. Reportedly Wants To Interview Pakistani Nuclear Scientists Fear That Scientists May Have Given Atomic Secrets To Taliban Did Osama bin Laden Try To Start His Own Nuclear Research?
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 1, 2001 (CBS) Top Pakistani nuclear scientists have been questioned amid fears that Pakistan's atomic secrets may have been leaked to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
The United States is seeking Pakistan's permission for American investigators to interview up to 12 Pakistani nuclear scientists, according to Eurasianet, a Web site that is widely regarded as an informed source for news and analysis on central and South Asia. It is affiliated with the Open Society Institute, a think tank funded by billionaire financier George Soros.
The scientists are suspected of having contacts with representatives of bin Laden and the Taliban.
Reliable sources tell Eurasianet that between eight and 12 suspects had been contacted by Taliban and al-Qaida representatives, who offered lucrative incentives for the scientists to work on a "nuclear research program" inside Afghanistan.
American officials reportedly possess "convincing evidence" that the Taliban and bin Laden were trying to work on a secret nuclear project. Those suspected by U.S. intelligence of having links to bin Laden include three renowned retired scientists, Sultan Bashirruddin Mahmood, Abdul Majeed and Mirza Yusuf Baig. The identities of others were being withheld for "security reasons." Last week, Pakistan arrested those three and questioned them.
A source says that U.S. officials believe that the al-Qaida nuclear project was perhaps at a very early stage of development, and they see little reason to believe about a presence or even production of nuclear weapons by the Afghanistan-based terrorist group.
Earlier this week, Pakistan agreed to allow U.S. investigators to interview the three retired nuclear scientists – Mahmood, Majeed and Baig – accused of having links to bin Laden.
Mahmood already had been questioned by Pakistani intelligence agencies for alleged terrorist ties. He was released on Oct. 26 after being "cleared" by security agencies, but the security agents detained him a second time on the night of Oct. 28.
Pakistan, the world's newest nuclear power, conducted underground nuclear explosions in May 1998 following similar tests by India. Pakistan says the tests were vital to maintain the strategic balance between the two rival nations, which have fought three wars since they were carved out of British India in 1947.
Pakistan said its nuclear materials are under strict control, and dismissed concerns that they might fall into the hands of religious extremists.
“Pakistan has an impeccable record of custodial safety and security, free of any incident of theft or leakage of nuclear material, equipment or technology,” Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar told a news conference Thursday.
He said the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission has an "unblemished record of safety and security" of the nuclear power plants and other civilian projects. These nuclear installations are under safeguards and subject to periodic inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said.
Sources close to Mahmood's family said the scientist returned home in a precarious state of mental and physical health. According to a late report, Mahmood was admitted into a military hospital due to an unexplained illness.
During the time spent with his family after being released by the security agencies, Mahmood appeared nervous, conspicuously quiet and displayed signs of extreme stress. “He did not talk much. Throughout the two-and-a-half days at home he was constantly watched and nobody was allowed to meet him," one source said.
Mahmood reportedly told his family during his second arrest Oct. 28 that if they did not hear from him in a few days, they must deem him dead. Mahmood is a well-known Pakistani scientist, who gained a reputation as an ardent defender of Pakistan’s right to develop nuclear weapons. Mahmood later retired and devoted himself to charity work, working closely with Afghan refugees. Eventually he established his own non-governmental organization that concentrated on Afghan-related work.
Asim Mahmood, the scientist's son, said his father had called the family late on October 31 and asked for some clothes and his personal computer, which were handed over to an unidentified man who came to collect them.
Among others investigated earlier by Pakistani intelligence are two retired colleagues of Mahmood’s – the former chief engineer for the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), Abdul Majeed, and a former PAEC scientist, Mirza Yusuf Baig. A joint US Nuclear Task Force Team comprising FBI and CIA investigators reportedly interrogated the scientists.
According to a source, U.S. investigators believe they have “credible information” that several on-the-job Pakistan scientists had promised the Taliban and bin Laden that they would leave their jobs in Pakistan, and move to Afghanistan to help develop nuclear weapons for al-Qaida. Pakistani officials accept American claims that these scientists had been offered jobs to develop a scientific laboratory in Afghanistan. But Islamabad claims that "they had rejected the offer."
One Pakistani official, however, confirms that some of the scientists had agreed to work in Afghanistan, subject to the prior approval of the Pakistani government. A source said US intelligence has verified that suspected scientists told their Afghan “contact persons” that they could work in Afghanistan only with clearance from Pakistan.
Pakistani intelligence officials launched a thorough investigation two weeks ago and have reached the conclusion that “the offer was at an early stage, and that no on-the-job scientist, or experts had visited Afghanistan to make [direct] contact with [al Qaeda].”
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials have also told EurasiaNet that the government is considering taking appropriate action, including possible expulsion, against the Taliban diplomats or individuals who initiated the contacts with the suspected scientists, without notifying Pakistani government representatives.
© MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Eurasianet and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), November 01, 2001