Pakistan is training 8,000 additional people to protect the country's nuclear arsenal, which the U.S. fears could be vulnerable to penetration by Islamist militants at war with the West, the Pakistani military said.
Those fears were heightened by a recent U.S. magazine article that quoted unnamed Pakistani and American officials as saying Pakistan transports nuclear weapons components around the country in delivery vans with little security to avoid detection _ a claim denied by Islamabad.
Pakistan insists its nuclear arsenal is well-defended, and the widespread fear among many Pakistanis is that the main threat stems not from al-Qaida or the Taliban, but from suspected U.S. plans to seize the country's weapons. These fears were heightened by the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
Washington has insisted it has no plans to seize Pakistan's weapons. But the recent article in The Atlantic magazine quoted unnamed American military and intelligence officials as saying the U.S. has trained extensively for potential missions in Pakistan to secure nuclear weapons or material that fall into the wrong hands.
Pakistan rarely reveals details about its nuclear program or the security around it. The announcement by the Pakistani military that it is training an additional 8,000 people to protect the nuclear arsenal could be seen as a response to the magazine article.
"This (group) comprises hand-picked officers and men, who are physically robust, mentally sharp and equipped with modern weapons and equipment," said the Pakistani military in a written statement Sunday.
The statement was released in conjunction with the graduation of 700 of these security personnel. The ceremony was attended by Maj. Gen. Muhammad Tahir, head of security for the Strategic Plans Division _ the arm of the Pakistani military tasked with protecting the nuclear arsenal.
Tahir "reiterated that extensive resources have been made available to train, equip, deploy and sustain an independent and potent security force to meet any and every threat emanating from any quarter," according to the statement.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry also put out a statement Sunday calling the allegations in the article in The Atlantic "pure fiction."
Fear that the U.S. could seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons is driven by widespread anti-Americanism in the country. Despite billions of dollars in American aid, 69 percent of people in the country view the U.S. as an enemy, according to a poll conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in June. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The U.S. Embassy said Monday that it has confidence that Pakistan is aware of the range of threats to its nuclear arsenal and has given high priority to securing its weapons and material.
It quoted President Barack Obama as saying in March that he feels "confident about Pakistan's security around its nuclear weapons programs. But that doesn't mean that there isn't improvement to make in all of our nuclear security programs."
Classified American diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks last December indicated that the U.S. was concerned that Islamist militants could get their hands on Pakistani nuclear material to make an illicit weapon.
Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world, according a memo from December 2008.
An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in July estimated that Pakistan has a nuclear weapons stockpile of 90-110 nuclear warheads. The country first successfully conducted a nuclear weapons test in 1998 in response to the nuclear program of its archenemy India.
The U.S. has pushed Pakistan to increase security at its nuclear facilities but has sometimes encountered difficulty. Islamabad agreed "in principle" in 2007 to an operation to remove highly enriched uranium from a Pakistani nuclear reactor, but it was never carried out because of domestic opposition, said a May 2009 diplomatic cable.
Pakistan said in response that it refused the operation because its own nuclear security would prevent the material from getting into the wrong hands.
Militants have continued their attacks throughout Pakistan. A suicide bomber detonated his explosives Monday as a former government official greeted others outside a mosque in northwestern Pakistan on an important Islamic holiday, killing the official and his guard, police said.
The blast after morning prayers in Swabi district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province when the attack occurred, said Ijaz Khan, a senior local police officer. Malik Hanif Khan Jadoon and his guard were killed and nine others were wounded, said Khan.
Jadoon used to be a senior official in Swabi and was a member of the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party whose members have often been targeted by the Pakistani Taliban.
Associated Press writer Riaz Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan.