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Pakistan 'Fully Capable' Of Securing Nuclear Arms

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan is capable of ensuring the security of its nuclear arsenal and a report it is negotiating "understandings" for U.S. units to augment the weapons' safety was "absurd," a top Pakistani commander said.

The security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and facilities has been brought into question by an increasingly violent Islamist insurgency, though the United States has repeatedly said it has confidence in Pakistan's ability to protect them.

"The New Yorker" magazine reported in its latest issue Pakistan and the United States were negotiating "highly sensitive understandings" that would allow specially trained U.S. units to augment security for the Pakistani weapons "in case of a crisis."

The Pakistani military's Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee chairman, General Tariq Majid, rejected the report as "absurd and plain mischievous."

"There is absolutely no question of sharing or allowing any foreign individual, entity or a state, any access to sensitive information about our nuclear assets," Majid said in a statement issued late on November 9.

Quoting an unidentified former senior U.S. intelligence official, "The New Yorker" said Pakistanis had given Washington "a virtual look at the number of warheads, some of their locations, and their command-and-control system."

But Majid, describing himself as "overall custodian of the development of our strategic program," said the United States knew only as "much as they can guess and nothing more."

Analysts say Pakistan's nuclear installations are so well guarded that militants would find it very hard to storm them.

But the sophistication of recent attacks, including one on the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi last month, and their proximity to Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure suggested the risk, while low, remained a cause for worry.

"The New Yorker" said the consultations had been kept secret because of growing antipathy towards the United States in Pakistan, where many people believe the United States wants to confiscate the nuclear weapons.

'Completely False'

U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson also rejected the "New Yorker" report.

"These allegations are completely false. The United States has no intention to seize Pakistani nuclear weapons or material," she said in a statement.

The Pentagon said the United States was providing some training and equipment to Pakistan to improve its nuclear security but denied any intension to seize its nuclear arsenal.

"The United States has confidence in the ability of the Pakistani government to protect its nuclear programmes and materials," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington.

"We work with Pakistan on a wide range of security assistance initiatives focused on strengthening counter-insurgency capabilities to foster stability," he said.

The Pentagon declined to comment on any contingency plan that might exist to seize the weapons in the event of an emergency.

Pakistan's nuclear weapons and installations are protected by heavy guarding, a blanket of secrecy, deliberate deception, the separation of warheads from missiles, and security practices adopted from the United States.

The nightmare scenario would be of militants launching a raid with collusion and information from inside.

But the military has long been aware of the need to keep militant sympathizers away from the nuclear program -- a concern frequently cited given close links in the past between the army and various militant groups.

Retired Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, head of the army's Strategic Plans Division which runs the nuclear program, conducts intensive personnel vetting modeled on U.S. personality profiling.

"We have operationalized a very effective nuclear security regime, which incorporates very stringent custodial and access controls," Majid said.

"We do not need to negotiate with any other country to physically augment our security forces."