Pakistan's most prominent nuclear-weapons scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was fired from his government job Saturday after President Pervez Musharraf affirmed investigators' findings that Khan had sold nuclear secrets to Iran and Libya, officials said.
Khan, the flamboyant, German-trained metallurgist who is widely regarded as the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, was dismissed from his post as a science adviser to the prime minister after a meeting of the Nuclear Command Authority, which is comprised of senior military and civilian officials and is chaired by Musharraf.
But the participants postponed a decision on whether to pursue criminal charges against Khan, who investigators say made millions of dollars from the sale of blueprints and other technical assistance routed to Iran and Libya by means of a nuclear black market in Dubai and, in the case of Iran, through a program that was supposed to be limited to nonmilitary nuclear technology. At least one other nuclear scientist, Mohammed Farooq, is accused of helping Khan in the scheme.
Musharraf is under heavy domestic pressure to go easy on the scientists, especially Khan, who is considered a national hero for his pivotal role in developing the uranium-enrichment technology that allowed the country to achieve nuclear parity with arch-rival India.
At the same time, Musharraf is eager to remain on good terms with the United States and to demonstrate Pakistan's commitment to curbing the spread of nuclear technology, in part by showing that he takes the allegations against Khan seriously.
Pakistan launched its investigation in November after the International Atomic Energy Agency turned up evidence that Pakistani scientists had helped Iran and Libya design centrifuges used to make enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. U.S. officials also suspect Pakistani scientists of providing nuclear assistance to North Korea, although Pakistani officials deny the charge.
Among those at Saturday's meeting was Lt. Gen. Ehsanul Haq, the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, who presented the case against Khan and said firing him would help improve Pakistan's credibility with the IAEA, a participant told the Washington Post.
Khan, 67, has a history of strained relations with Musharraf, who in 2001 forced him from his job as director of the A.Q. Khan Laboratory, the uranium-enrichment facility that Khan founded nearly three decades ago after his return to Pakistan from the Netherlands, where he acquired the designs for centrifuges to equip the lab.
Still, as recently as Friday, even some of Musharraf's senior advisers were urging the president to not disgrace Khan.
Pakistani officials also acknowledge a full public airing of the technology sales could prove embarrassing for the military.
Khan has made no public comment on the allegations.