VIENNA, Sept 30: Pakistan has refused to let the UN nuclear watchdog interview scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview with the BBC on Thursday.

"We have not been allowed by Pakistan to talk to the man," Mr ElBaradei, who is director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in the BBC World Service interview.

It was the first time the IAEA has admitted that Pakistan is refusing to let it see Dr A.Q.Khan. The IAEA has been asking Pakistan regularly to help it investigate the international black market allegedly run by Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Pakistan's cooperation with the probe is crucial in resolving how Iran, and other states like North Korea, have supplied themselves with nuclear parts and technology that can be used to make atomic weapons.

Asked why President Pervez Musharraf said recently that nobody had asked to question Dr A.Q. Khan, Mr ElBaradei said: "I can tell my Pakistani friends that I will be happy to send a team tomorrow to talk to him if we can, absolutely."

Mr ElBaradei said Dr Khan's network had "more than 30 companies and 30 countries all over the globe involved in this fantastic sophisticated illicit trafficking". But Mr ElBaradei said "as far as I know Mr Khan has not talked to any non-Pakistani until now".

Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said in Tehran in August that his country was cooperating with the IAEA probe into Iran's suspect nuclear programme but ruled out allowing international inspectors into Pakistan.

He pointed out that Pakistan was not a signatory to the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), which mandates the IAEA to monitor compliance with international safeguards.

The agency's inspectors have found traces of highly-enriched uranium inside Iran, leading to suspicions that Tehran has been trying to produce nuclear bombs and not just atomic energy as it insists.

But Tehran maintains the traces found their way into the country on equipment bought from Dr Khan's network. The IAEA wants to take so-called "environmental samples" from Pakistan to compare them with those found in Iran - crucial in verifying Tehran's claims.

Pakistan has supplied results from sampling it has conducted itself, but has not allowed IAEA inspectors into the country to do their own sampling, Mr ElBaradei said in a report earlier in September.

Mr ElBaradei said the IAEA needed results from its own testing to be able to draw definitive conclusions. He told the BBC that he did not think Iran was an "imminent threat" to make nuclear weapons and that "verification and diplomacy" remain "the only way to resolve" questions about Tehran's ambitions.

He said Iran was "as far away as any country that has the know-how to enrich uranium . . . maybe one year, maybe two years". Enrichment makes uranium fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but can also produce the explosive material for atomic bombs. -AFP

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