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Elite US Troops To Protect Pak Nuclear Weapons: Sunday Times

The US Army is training a crack unit to seal off and snatch back Pakistani nuclear weapons in the event that militants, possibly from inside the country's security apparatus, get their hands on a nuclear
PTI January 18, 2010 11:18 IST
PTI

The US Army is training a crack unit to seal off and snatch back Pakistani nuclear weapons in the event that militants, possibly from inside the country's security apparatus, get their hands on a nuclear device or materials that could make one, says a report in The Sunday Times, London.

Pakistan was swift with its denial. A Pak Foreign Office spokesman rejected the report saying Pakistan's strategic assets are as safe as that of any other nuclear weapon state and these assets are fully safeguarded and secure under the protection of a well-established command and control system.

The Sunday Times report revealed that the specialized unit would be charged with recovering the nuclear materials and securing them. “What you have in Pakistan is nuclear weapons mixed with the highest density of extremists in the world, so we have a right to be concerned,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer, who used to run the US Energy Department's intelligence unit.

“There have been attacks on army bases which stored nuclear weapons and there have been breaches and infiltrations by terrorists into military facilities.”

In a counterterrorism journal, published by America's West Point military academy, he documented three incidents.

The first was an attack in November 2007 at Sargodha in Punjab, where nuclear capable F-16 jet aircraft are thought to be stationed. The following month a suicide bomber struck at Pakistan's nuclear airbase at Kamra in Attock district.

 In August 2008, a group of suicide bombers blew up the gates to a weapons complex at the Wah Cantonment in Punjab, believed to be one of Pakistan's nuclear warhead assembly plants. The attack left 63 people dead.

A further attack followed at Kamra last October. Pakistan denies that the base still has a nuclear role, but Gregory believes it does. A six-man suicide team was arrested in Sargodha last August.

Fears that militants could penetrate a nuclear facility intensified after a brazen attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi in October when 10 gunmen wearing army uniforms got inside and laid siege for 22 hours. Last month there was an attack on the naval command centre in Islamabad.

Al-Qaeda leadership has made no secret of its desire to get its hands on weapons for a “nuclear 9/11”. “I have no doubt they are hell-bent on acquiring this,” said Mowatt-Larssen. “These guys are thinking of nuclear at the highest level and are approaching it in increasingly professional ways.”

Nuclear experts and US officials say the biggest fear is of an inside job amid growing anti-American feeling in Pakistan. Last year 3,021 Pakistanis were killed in terrorist attacks, more than in Afghanistan, yet polls suggest Pakistanis consider the United States to be a greater threat than the Taliban.

“You have 8,000-12,000 [people] in Pakistan with some type of role in nuclear missiles — whether as part of an assembly team or security,” said Gregory. “It's a very large number and there is a real possibility that among those people are sympathisers of terrorist or Jihadist groups who may facilitate some kind of attack.”

Pakistan is thought to possess about 80 nuclear warheads. Although, the weapons are well guarded, the fear is that materials or processes to enrich uranium could fall into the wrong hands.

“All it needs is someone in Pakistan within the nuclear establishment and in a position of key access to become radicalised,” said Mowatt-Larssen. “This is not just theoretical. It did happen — Pakistan has had inside problems before.”

Bashir Mahmood, the former head of Pakistan's plutonium reactor, formed the Islamic charity Ummah Tameer-e-Nau in March 2000 after resigning from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. He was arrested in Islamabad on October 23, 2001, with his associate Abdul Majeed for alleged links to Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan's military leadership, which controls the nuclear programme, has always bristled at the suggestion that its nuclear facilities are at risk. The generals insist that storing components in different sites keeps them secure.

US officials refused to speak on the record about American safety plans, well aware of how this would be seen in Islamabad. However, one official admitted that the United States does not know where all of Pakistan's storage sites are located. “Don't assume the US knows everything,” he said.

Concerns about hostility towards America within elements of the Pakistani armed forces first surfaced in 2007. At a meeting of military commanders staged at Kurram, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a Pakistani major drew his pistol and shot an American. The incident was hushed up as a gunfight.