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Pakistan Feels the Heat Of US Nuclear Worries

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TWO years after Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto set out to repair Pakistan's fragile ties with Washington, new irritants in the relationship may undo the progress that has been made.

Pakistan is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with US charges leaked to news media that it received nuclear technology from China, which will most likely endanger its future ties with the US.

Government officials and Western diplomats also fret that the controversy may give the country's hard-line nationalists and Islamists, long opposed to better ties, an opportunity to criticize the government's policies. This stirring of anti-American passions, they say, may eventually force Ms. Bhutto to be more cautious in reaching out to the US.

These concerns are partly motivated by the government's recent treatment of Islamic groups. After a suicide bomb exploded outside the Egyptian Embassy last November, blamed on a group opposed to the Egyptian government, Pakistan cracked down and closely monitored the activities of several Islamic organizations. Many suspects have been detained for questioning by police.

Vociferous denials

Despite a confirmation from the Central Intelligence Agency that China sold Pakistan 5,000 ring magnets - equipment that could be used to enrich weapons-grade uranium - Pakistani officials vehemently deny reports that China transferred any nuclear-weapons-related technology to them. They insist the technology is for use in a nuclear power project.

Bhutto has tried to shift the attention to her country's archrival and neighbor - India. ''Peace through the entire region is at risk from India's [missile and nuclear] buildup,'' she said. The recent charges were no more than ''a totally baseless and false allegation, systematically planned to divert attention from the real threat to the region [from India],'' she added.

Pakistan has recently expressed concern over reports that India is about to conduct another nuclear test - the first one was in 1974. It is also concerned about New Delhi's recent successful testing of the ''Prithvi'' short-range missile and claims that the weapon, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is aimed at Pakistan.

Many government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, are more vocal than Bhutto in expressing their frustration with what they see as potential troubles in relations with the US. ''The government will be condemned by domestic opinion if the US decides to take any action [due to the latest controversy],'' says one.

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