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Tip of iceberg: Diplomats

Abdul Qadeer Khan is revered as Pakistan's "father of the bomb."

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VIENNA, Austria (Reuters) -- The nuclear black market used by Pakistan's top atomic scientist to sell nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea may be far bigger than initially feared, the U.N. nuclear watchdog and Western diplomats have said.

The father of Pakistan's atom bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, publicly confessed to leaking nuclear secrets on Wednesday, and several Western diplomats told Reuters they suspected the Pakistan-led black market uncovered by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) might only be the tip of the iceberg.

"Our big priority is to figure out if there are any other countries that might have benefited from this nuclear network," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

Media attention has focused on Khan's atomic aid to Tripoli, Tehran and Pyongyang. But Western diplomats said it could not be ruled out that other countries had been customers of Khan's network of nuclear "middlemen."

"This is what we are all worried about," said one Western diplomat. He declined to say what other countries might have been customers of Khan.

In contrast to media reports that the nuclear black market Khan used was small, diplomats said the available evidence indicated it is massive. Its aim is to skirt international sanctions and sell potentially weapons-related technology to nations under embargo.

"Clearly what came out of Libya is that this is much bigger and more extensive than was previously thought," said a second Western diplomat.

In December, Libya said it would allow international experts to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes. Diplomats said Libya had provided the IAEA with key evidence to implicate Khan in Tripoli's illicit procurement of uranium enrichment equipment -- a key technology in making nuclear weapons.

The second diplomat said the size of this black market, which spans the Eurasian landmass, should not be underestimated.

"It's not as big as the automotive industry, but it's certainly bigger than the tiddlywinks industry," he said.

Diplomats said the "middlemen" who helped countries like Iran, North Korea and Libya acquire sensitive nuclear technology operated in Germany, Netherlands, Malaysia and United Arab Emirates -- and possibly other states as yet undisclosed.

'Could not have acted alone'

Diplomats also doubted Khan's statement that he had arranged it all himself and that Pakistan's government and army knew nothing of his actions. They said it was inconceivable Khan acted alone given the interest Pakistan's military takes in the country's nuclear programme.

At the same time, some Vienna-based diplomats said the most important issue was not who did what but that the investigation by the IAEA uncovered every tentacle of the global nuclear black market so that it could be destroyed.

"The most important thing is that this never happens again," said the first diplomat, who added that export controls on all sensitive nuclear technology across the globe must be tightened to prevent rogue states from developing atomic weapons.

Several diplomats said they believed Khan had either directly or indirectly supplied Libya with designs for nuclear weapons and they feared these designs could have ended up in Iran and North Korea.

Tehran insists U.S. allegations that its civilian nuclear power programme is a front for developing the bomb are false and says its atomic ambitions are purely peaceful.

Western diplomats remain skeptical.

A third diplomat said Khan may be able to provide the "silver bullet" showing he sold Tehran not only uranium enrichment technology, which has peaceful uses, but know-how that could only be used for bombs.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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