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Saturday, 19 April 2008

Pakistan has effective nuclear command: PM

REUTERS, ISLAMABAD - Pakistan has an effective command and control structure for its nuclear weapons and they are fully safe and secure, the country's new prime minister said on Thursday.

Pakistan is the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation and is a staunch ally of the United States in its campaign against al Qaeda and Taliban.

An unprecedented wave of suicide bombings by the Islamist militants in recent months, particularly after the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in a gun and bomb attack on Dec. 27, raised concerns among its western allies about the safety of its nuclear weapons.

Pakistani officials have repeatedly rejected such concerns as unfounded.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, a former Bhutto aide who was sworn in last month, said he was satisfied with the effectiveness of the command and control structure of nuclear programme during his first visit to the Strategic Plans Division, which oversees country's nuclear programme.

He said the nuclear command structures were "well conceived and elaborate" and had "matured".

"It has been ensured that while our nuclear assets are safe and secure, the (nuclear) force development as per needs of Pakistan's minimum deterrence is progressing well," a statement from the prime minister's office quoted Gilani as saying.

Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is overseen by the military-led Strategic Plans Division, which works under a National Command Authority (NCA) headed by the president and with the prime minister as its vice chairman.
Key cabinet ministers and the heads of the army, navy and air force are also members of the NCA, which controls all aspects of the country's nuclear programme, including deployment and, if ever necessary, the use of the weapons.

Though U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf still heads the NCA, his role in national affairs has considerably weakened since his allies were defeated by Bhutto's party and other opposition groups in Feb. 18 elections.

However, officials have said that the new government has no plans to change the country's nuclear command structure.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Pakistan in February. After meeting Musharraf and officials overseeing the arsenal, he declared that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were well protected and he saw little chance of them falling into the hands of Islamist militants.

Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 just weeks after similar tests by its rival, India.

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