President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan said Monday that he believes that A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear expert who ran the world's largest proliferation ring, exported "probably a dozen" centrifuges to North Korea to produce nuclear weapons fuel. The Pakistani leader also said that after two years of interrogations of Khan there was still no evidence about whether he also gave North Korea a Chinese-origin design to build a nuclear weapon.
Musharraf's comments in an interview, which echo statements he made last month to Japanese reporters, came a day before the United States reopens talks with North Korea about its nuclear program in Beijing. The Pakistani leader's comments about the results of the interrogations of Khan, a national hero who is under a loose form of house arrest in Islamabad, are significant because they tend to confirm the accusations U.S. intelligence officials made against North Korea in 2002.
At that time, North Korean officials appeared to confirm that they had secretly started up a second nuclear program to build atomic weapons using uranium technology obtained from Khan's network, as an alternative to a plutonium program that was frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States. But ever since, North Korea has denied that a second, secret bomb program exists.
A dozen centrifuges would not be enough to produce a significant amount of bomb-grade uranium. But U.S. officials say they would have enabled North Korea to copy the design and build their own.
The Bush administration has insisted that unless North Korea agrees to give up both programs — and agrees to a broad program of inspections — no comprehensive nuclear deal can be reached. North Korea has suggested it may be willing to give up its older plutonium program, based at a huge nuclear complex located at Yongbyon, but has reiterated its denials that it has hidden centrifuges to make bomb-grade uranium.
In a wide-ranging discussion in New York with three journalists from the New York Times, Musharraf also discussed Pakistan's tentative diplomatic openings toward Israel and its efforts to track down al-Qaida leaders. He said that the opening to Israel could flourish "in case there is forward movement" on negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but he said, "this is by no means recognition of Israel." Despite protests in Pakistan about the new initiative, he insisted that his move has met little opposition among mainstream Muslims in Pakistan, and he is to address a Jewish group for the first time during his visit here.
"What is the harm if I interacted with the Jewish Congress, knowing their influence here?" he said.
He said it was possible that Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader, is still moving between remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan four years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. "I will not negate entirely, with confidence, that he is not there," he said. "But I will never accept anybody who says with confidence that he is there." He said later that he often asks: "Do you have intelligence, have you heard him?"
Bin Laden's whereabouts are a particularly sensitive subject for Musharraf because Pakistan has been accused by some intelligence officials of doing a lackluster job of pursuing al-Qaida suspects, stepping up pressure on them when it suits Pakistani interests but turning down the pressure at other times. He rejected that charge and said bin Laden's power is reduced, no matter where he is.
"I do not think he can influence, because he is on the run, hiding," Musharraf said. If bin Laden is on the Pakistan-Afghan border, he is switching sides "wherever he sees danger," Musharraf added.
He rejected arguments that Pakistan was half-hearted in its efforts to root out al-Qaida and remnants of the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until the American-led war there in 2001. "We have almost eliminated them from our cities — we have caught about 700 of them — and we have broken their back in the mountains," he said. The groups no longer operate in the valleys of the Afghan border area, he said, "because we have occupied them."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also speaking to reporters on Monday at The New York Times, praised Musharraf for working in three areas and said the United States would be supportive: helping to pursue members of al-Qaida; creating "diplomatic space" for operating by reaching out to India and Israel, and working to improve education and the economy to discourage militancy. "There are parts of Pakistan that are extremely poor where you get breeding grounds for this kind of extremism," she said, and the United States would help him deal with those.
Musharraf said that, in a meeting he had Monday with Rice, he asked her to begin action toward a free-trade agreement with Pakistan. That is likely to meet some resistance in Congress, which derailed efforts by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks to aid Pakistan by lifting restrictions on textile imports.
But he said that he made no demands for an agreement that would match the Bush administration's offer to help India develop a civilian nuclear power program. Both India and Pakistan have refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and that has prevented most forms of nuclear cooperation with the United States.
The administration contends that those restrictions should be lifted in India's case because of its strong protections against nuclear proliferation. But the same officials, speaking on background for fear of angering Pakistan, have said that Khan's activities and continued questions about Pakistan's nuclear controls make it impossible to put together a similar deal with Pakistan, despite its designation as a "major non-NATO ally."
In his discussion of Khan, Musharraf said that in two years of questioning Khan — which the Pakistanis insisted they would do themselves, rather than allowing the United States to question him — a critical question had not been resolved: Did the scientist give the same bomb design to North Korea and Iran that investigators found in Libya, when it dismantled its uranium program. "I don't know," he said. "Whether he passed these bomb designs to others — there is no such evidence."
He said the design itself would not mean a country could actually fabricate a weapon, given the other technical challenges it would face.