RAWALPINDI, Feb 5: President Gen Pervez Musharraf on Thursday pardoned Dr A.Q. Khan, the man accused of being involved in nuclear proliferation, on the recommendation of the federal cabinet, which met in Islamabad earlier in the day.

Speaking at a crowded press conference at the Army House auditorium here, the president announced the decision and, at the same time, vowed to continue the country's nuclear programme "come what may."

He gave full credit to Dr Khan for developing the country's nuclear deterrent and called him a hero, but said he could not have sacrificed the country to save a hero.

He said the government would decide about the fate of 10 other scientists under detention and asked their relatives not to put public pressure on him in this connection.

MEDIA SENSATIONALISM: He said that some people in the domestic media were indulging in what he called emotionalism and sensationalism and creating doubts about their country. He said they did not understand what would happen to Pakistan if the government, the army or both were implicated in nuclear proliferation.

"The UN Security Council will immediately impose sanctions against us, next we will be asked to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and roll back, then we will be declared a rogue state and finally our vital interests would come under imminent physical danger," he warned.

He said that for him Pakistan came first and everything else was secondary. "In the first place you (the media) should play a more responsible role in this matter and secondly, even if for the sake of argument it is accepted that the government and the army were involved in the affair, do you think it will serve our national interest to shout about it from the roof-top?"

The president responded with an emphatic 'No' when a foreign correspondent asked him if he was prepared to hand over all the documentary evidence gathered against the scientists, allow a full and independent investigation into allegations of nuclear proliferation and bring Pakistan's weapons programme under the supervision of the UN.

He said Pakistan was a sovereign country and it would not allow any outsider to interfere in "matters that were truly ours, but if anyone from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) comes here we will tell them everything."

Maintaining that even Europeans and other Asian countries were involved in nuclear proliferation, he asked the questioner why nobody was asking them to do what he was asking Pakistan to do.

He said no government, past or present, and no army chief, past or present, were involved in nuclear proliferation.

He said the very nature of the programme was clandestine and, therefore, had to be kept secret even from intelligence agencies. "The brigadier who was posted in the KRL (Khan Research Laboratories) was accountable to Dr Khan himself so how could he have stopped his boss from doing anything or taking anything out of the laboratories, and then even if he had tried, how could he have stopped the doctor from taking away a piece of paper with the drawing of the design?"

He agreed with a suggestion that intelligence agencies should have investigated Dr Khan when he was spending left and right, "but then, that too had to be ignored because we were ourselves procuring material from the international black market."

He reiterated his charge that Dr Khan and his associates were motivated only by greed and nothing else and refused to explain what Dr Khan meant when he said in his TV confession that he had acted "in good faith" and there was an "error of judgement."

According to the president, only three persons - the president, the army chief and Dr Khan - were privy to the affairs relating to the nuclear programme between 1988 and 1999. Before that only Dr Khan and president Gen Ziaul Haq knew what was happening at the KRL and later the then finance minister, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, was brought on board to look after the finances of the programme, he said. He said that when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched the programme in 1976, only the late prime minister and Dr Khan knew about it.

He said he as the director-general military operations had no idea what was happening at the KRL. However, when he took over as the army chief, he had immediately proposed the setting up of an organization to take over the custodial control of the programme, but the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, ignored the suggestion, he said.

"The National Command Authority was finally established in February 2000 and since then the programme has been fully secured," he said.

He was very harsh on some retired army generals whom he called 'military philosophers' and 'pseudo-intellectuals'.

Referring to former army chief Aslam Beg's claim that president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, prime minister Benazir Bhutto and he himself as the chief of the army staff had taken a number of crucial nuclear restraint measures in 1990 and conveyed their decisions to the National Command Authority, the president said the NCA did not exist at that time.

He, however, absolved former army chiefs Gen Beg and Gen Jehangir Karamat of any wrongdoings in connection with nuclear proliferation and brushed aside an allegation levelled against Gen Beg by former minister Ishaq Dar, saying that it was one man's word against the others.

SHAHEEN II TEST: He claimed that never before in the country's history had the nuclear and missile programmes made so much progress as they did in the last four years. "We have achieved the required deterrence level and on quantification have found it to have gone even beyond and developments in this regard are continuing, the Shaheen II with a range of 2,000 kilometres will be ready for testing in a month's time."

He said Pakistan was now an overt nuclear power and no pressure could make it give up this capability. He said Pakistan at the moment had 6,500 scientists to carry forward the programmes and there were 45,000 people working on various projects.

He assured the nation that neither he nor the country was under any pressure from anywhere to give up the country's nuclear programme, "we have the best of relations with all, the Europeans, Japan, the US, including now with India, and we are coming very close to the Russians as well."

Asked if the world would pardon Dr Khan as he had done, the president said: "Leave it to me. I am standing between Dr Khan and the world community. Nothing will happen to him."

When asked would the world not use against Pakistan, at some future point, the evidence that had been gathered about nuclear proliferation, the president said: "If we walk the right path, nothing like that would ever happen."

He agreed with a questioner that when he removed Dr Khan from th KRL in 2000, evidence of his financial misdemeanours had become too obvious as by that time the strategic planning division had been set up and the entire programme had been brought under the chairman joint chiefs of staff committee's secretariat.

About Kashmir, he said he had not agreed to set aside the UN resolutions unilaterally and that he continued to recognize what was happening in the held Kashmir as freedom struggle and not terrorism. He said: "The world has not yet agreed on a universally accepted definition of terrorism."

Referring to Dr Khan's fate, he said he (the president) had to fulfil the international requirements and, at the same time, he had also to shield the doctor and "this was the minimum that I could have done to shield him."

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