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In unusually strong language, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee charged Friday that the State Department has knowingly violated federal law by permitting commercial sales of arms to Pakistan.

"Many in the State Department are aware that commercial sales to Pakistan do violate the law," said Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., a co-sponsor of the 1985 law that bars sales of military equipment to Pakistan while that nation is developing nuclear weapons.Pell was responding to a story in the Los Angeles Times on Friday. The report disclosed that the Bush administration had permitted Pakistan to buy spare parts for American-supplied F-16 fighter planes and other arms from U.S. companies vital to keep its military operating.

According to Pell, the Foreign Relations Committee learned only recently of the commercial sales policy. The disclosure came after a department employee alerted the State Department inspector general's office and the office opened an investigation, Pell said.

So far, Pell and other angry lawmakers have not indicated what they plan to do in response to disclosure of the sales. On Thursday, another powerful committee chairman, Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, said he, too, believes that the sales violate the law. A Foreign Relations Committee staff member said that the panel will demand strict enforcement of the law.

Margaret Tutwiler, chief spokeswoman for Secretary of State James A. Baker III, told reporters Friday that the arms sales to Pakistan do not violate the law because they are conducted by a commercial company. She repeated Baker's contention that the law covers only direct sales by the U.S. government.

But Pell and other lawmakers challenged that interpretation of the law, called the Pressler amendment for its chief sponsor, Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D.