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Pakistan Nuclear Expert Recalls Detention

RESPONSE TO TERROR

Probe: Specialist was held with six others on suspicion of leaking secrets through a foundation that sought to aid the Taliban in rebuilding Afghanistan.

November 12, 2001|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Abdul Majeed apologized for not inviting his foreign visitor inside.

Standing at the front gate of his modest bungalow here Sunday as a brood of chickens pecked nearby for food, the retired nuclear engineer said his activities have been restricted since Americans started interrogating him.

"They thought we were making a nuclear bomb for Afghanistan," Majeed said.

The 62-year-old specialist in nuclear fuels was one of seven Pakistanis detained by intelligence authorities in late October in connection with a welfare organization they operated inside Afghanistan.

Majeed and a prominent nuclear scientist, Bashiruddin Mehmood, were released to their homes after 10 days but remain under supervision. The five other detainees--businessmen and retired military officers who are all board members of the Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, or Reconstruction Foundation, founded by Mehmood--are still in custody.

The men were interrogated in several four- to five-hour sessions by American and Pakistani authorities, Majeed said. "They told us they had been sent by President Bush and [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf," he said. U.S. diplomats here had no comment on his statement.

Coming in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the activities of Majeed and Mehmood, two high-ranking former employees of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission, raised concerns that the country's nuclear secrets might have been compromised. The contention has been repeatedly and forcefully denied by the Pakistani government.

But the fears were rekindled last week after a Pakistani journalist reported that Afghanistan-based militant Osama bin Laden told him that his Al Qaeda organization possesses nuclear arms "as a deterrent."

A report in a Pakistani newspaper Sunday quoted an unidentified Pakistani official who said Mehmood met with Bin Laden on two occasions before Sept. 11. Mehmood, who once supervised construction of nuclear power reactors, could not be reached for comment.

But Majeed, in his first interview with a foreign journalist since his detention, insisted that the activities of the Ummah Tameer-e-Nau organization were entirely benign, concerned only with helping the Taliban regime rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure after two decades of war. Majeed said he had never met Bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Pakistan joined the nuclear weapons club with an underground test in 1998 and is now believed to have acquired material for 30 to 40 warheads.

Pakistani intelligence sources say that although fears about leaks of nuclear secrets appear to have subsided, the investigation is ongoing, under strict secrecy. "It is a very sensitive issue. This is evident from the fact that we still are not done with the investigation," an intelligence source said.

The seven men were taken into custody Oct. 23, but several days passed before family members received any phone calls from them.

"My father had a meeting in our office; people were waiting for him," said Shahzad Baig, the eldest son of one of the men detained, Mirza Yousaf Baig, 60, a construction company owner in Lahore. "He is a punctual man. After he failed to show up, we filed a missing person report. We didn't receive a phone call from him in three days."

Mirza Baig remains in custody, along with another industrialist and three retired military officers. They reportedly are being questioned about the source of money that went into the group, which has been linked to the Al Rashid Trust, a charity on the U.S. terrorist watch list.

"To this day," Shahzad Baig said more than two weeks after his father's detention, "no one in the government has told us anything about what he is being held for or when he will be released."

The fact that Mirza Baig and others involved in selling stock and raising money for the organization are still in custody indicates that the investigation has shifted from the leakage of nuclear secrets to the funneling of money into the Taliban regime.

Mehmood's relatives said they initially feared that the two former nuclear specialists would be "extradited to the United States and that we would never see them again."

As the group's founder and a vocal advocate of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, Mehmood appears to be central to the investigation. The 55-year-old senior director of the nuclear program resigned in protest in 1998 after then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed to sign the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The Pakistani government has denied any direct link between Mehmood and the nuclear weapons program. However, on March 23, 1999, Mehmood was presented a service award with a citation that said: "Despite [U.S.] sanctions against the transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan, Mehmood was able to achieve his important and critical tasks."

Before his detention, Mehmood was highly critical of the U.S. bombing campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. He described the Taliban regime as "the ideal Islamic state."

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