VIENNA -- Pakistan has developed new illicit channels to upgrade its nuclear weapons program, despite efforts by the U.N. atomic watchdog to shut down all illegal procurement avenues, diplomats and nuclear experts said.
Western diplomats familiar with an investigation of the nuclear black market by the U.N.'s Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said this news was disturbing.
While Pakistan appeared to be shopping for its own needs, the existence of some nuclear black market channels meant there were still ways for rogue states or terrorist groups to acquire technology that could be used in atomic weapons, they said.
"General procurement efforts (by Pakistan) are going on. It is a determined effort," a diplomat from a member of the 44-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"This was discussed at an NSG meeting in Vienna last week."
Nuclear experts said these channels involved new middlemen who had not played a role in earlier deals which came to light last year.
These are not the same people. They're new, which is worrying," said one Western diplomat.
Pakistan is subject to sanctions against its atomic arms program as it has not signed the 1968 global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Pakistan first successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 1998 and remains under a strict embargo by the NSG, whose members include the world's major producers of nuclear-related equipment, such as the United States, Russia and China.
A diplomat from another NSG country that is a producer of technology usable in weapons programs said his country's customs agents were not surprised. "Our people are well aware of Pakistan's efforts to upgrade its centrifuge program."
Asked if Pakistan was using the black market to upgrade its facilities, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jalil Abbas Jilani said in Islamabad: "To be honest, I don't have an update on that."
"Pakistan's nuclear capability is a reality which has to be reconciled, and obviously in order to maintain its capability Pakistan would make all the preparations," he added.
An IAEA spokeswoman declined to comment.
The black market will be a major topic of discussion at the NPT review conference in New York in May, where IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei hopes to rally support for a plan to patch up loopholes in the pact against the spread of nuclear arms.
FRONT COMPANIES AND MIDDLEMEN
Being outside the NPT, like nuclear-armed India and presumed atomic power Israel, meant Pakistan had to buy on the sly.
This was why Abdul Qadeer Khan, the disgraced scientist who built Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and whose role was revealed in 2003, set up a clandestine procurement network with front companies and middlemen who duped manufacturers across the globe into thinking purchases of sensitive dual-use items were intended for civilian purposes.
Khan later used this network to supply Iran, which says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and Libya, which got the same type of technology as Iran but said it was for a covert bomb program that was fully dismantled last year.
It was unclear if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would bring up the issue during her visit this week to Pakistan, a key ally in Washington's fight against global terrorism.
Non-U.S. diplomats and experts said Washington was not putting enough pressure on Pakistan.
"Some countries seem to have forgotten that Pakistan's procurement is not legitimate," said David Albright, a nuclear expert and former U.N. weapons inspector.
The diplomats said national authorities had intercepted some of Pakistan's attempted purchases, including high-strength aluminum for gas centrifuges used to make atomic fuel.
Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a U.S. think-tank, said a warning was issued last year that Pakistan would be shopping globally.
"A European country gave out a warning about a year ago that Pakistan had funding to renovate its nuclear weapons complex and would use Malaysia as a false end-use location," Albright said.
The IAEA began investigating Khan's network in 2003 after it discovered Iran had enrichment technology identical to Pakistan.
Since that time, the IAEA and its member countries have been trying to shut down network of Khan, who remains under house arrest in Pakistan. The United States, Germany, South Africa and Malaysia have arrested individuals linked to the network.
While Khan may no longer be running it, Joe Cirincione, director of non-proliferation at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the black market was still alive.
"The network hasn't been shut down," he said. "It's just gotten quieter. Perhaps it's gone a little deeper underground."
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Islamabad)
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