/ 27 April 2009

Zardari: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safe

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday ruled out the possibility of his country’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban.

In a wide-ranging interview with international media, Zardari spoke about the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, growing Taliban clout in Pakistan and his own political future.

”I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is under safe hands,” he said.

The Taliban’s creeping advances towards the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in recent weeks has heightened fears in the United States about the stability of its nuclear-armed ally.

Western allies that need Pakistan’s support to defeat al-Qaeda and succeed in stabilising Afghanistan, dread the idea of any threat to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Zardari said Pakistan had a strong command-and-control system for its nuclear weapons that was fully in place.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Fox News last week that the US could not contemplate the possibility of the Taliban taking control of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

The Taliban began extending their influence across the volatile North West Frontier Province on the border with Afghanistan after Zardari this month reluctantly agreed to impose Islamic sharia law in Swat in the hope of ending violence.

The move raised concerns the year-old civilian government was ceding ground to the militants.

The Taliban in Swat this month said they were ready to give refuge to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in lands under Taliban control, triggering alarm in the West that the mountainous valley could become another sanctuary for the militants.

Bin Laden’s whereabouts
Zardari said the whereabouts of Bin Laden remained a mystery and there was a suspicion that he could be dead.

He said US officials had told him that they had no trace of the al-Qaeda chief and the same view was shared by his own intelligence agencies.

”There is no news,” the president said. ”They obviously feel that he does not exist anymore but that’s not confirmed, we can’t confirm that,” he said, referring to Pakistani intelligence agencies.

Zardari said authorities in the northwest of the country had struck the deal with Islamists in Swat in line with the popular demand for a negotiated and political settlement of the issue.

However, he said Parliament could reassess the situation after militants challenged writ of the government by extending their activities to other parts of the region.

He dispelled the impression that Pakistan launched the recent military operation against the militants in Lower Dir district, near Swat, under pressure from the US, saying Washington was not ”micromanaging” matters in Pakistan.

Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was elected to the office last year but his popularity has plunged after he locked horns with his main rival, Nawaz Sharif, last month in a confrontation over independence of judiciary.

Zardari said he enjoyed a ”trustful relationship” with the the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 61 years of history, and was confident that he would complete his five-year term in office unless it was cut short by a military coup.

”I don’t see [a military coup] possible at the moment in the present circumstances, whether it is international or local.” — Reuters