After years of suspicion, U.S. officials concluded that Pakistan developed a nuclear explosive device last spring at the height of increased tension with India over long-disputed Kashmir, a knowledgeable source said Tuesday. The determination was based partially on satellite photographs of the closely guarded Kahuta uranium enrichment facility about 12 miles from Islamabad, as well as on reports of covert attempts to buy sophisticated high-temperature furnaces and other critical parts through intermediaries in the United States and Europe, other sources said.
The U.S. assessment, which Pakistan officially denies, was behind Washington's unexpected suspension of $564-million in new economic and military aid to Pakistan earlier this month. The freeze also affects $2.7-billion in previously authorized military aid and sales, including the delivery next year of 71 F-16 fighter jets.
U.S. officials concede that the aid freeze vastly complicates U.S. relations with its third-largest aid recipient and closest ally in South Asia. It also has become an emotional political issue in national elections being held today across the country.
Analysts said Benazir Bhutto, who was ousted as prime minister Aug. 6, appeared likely to capture strong support despite a seventh corruption charge filed against her Tuesday by the caretaker government.
Public opinion polls show most Pakistanis strongly support the country's nuclear program to maintain a balance of power with India, its neighbor and longtime enemy. Pakistan began its program after India exploded a nuclear device in 1974.
Pakistan has never tested a nuclear bomb and denies having one. But it refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty or allow international experts to inspect suspected facilities until India agrees to the same conditions.
The aid freeze was triggered when President Bush could not certify to Congress that Pakistan "does not possess a nuclear explosive device," as required by law.
"We believe it's gone past that line," the knowledgeable source said, adding, "There's a certain amount of subjectivity in there."
Pakistan has fought three wars with India, two over the status of Kashmir. Both countries claim the divided Himalayan state, while hundreds have died this year as India has tried to crush a violent pro-independence movement in its only Moslem state.
Some U.S. officials privately admit they conveniently ignored Pakistan's nuclear development in the 1980s, when the country was used to supply American weapons to anti-Soviet guerrillas fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.
Many Pakistanis say that the United States also overlooked widespread human rights violations, an explosion in drug trafficking and 11 years of brutal martial law under Bhutto's predecessor, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
"They find America's sudden focus on democracy rather amusing," one Western diplomat said.