SLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 20 — Pakistan on Tuesday barred all scientists working on its nuclear weapons program from leaving the country, as the government intensified its inquiry into allegations that nuclear technology had been shared with Iran.
At the same time, a senior intelligence official said a former army commander had approved the transfer of technology to Iran.
The official said the scientist who had led the effort to build an atomic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had told investigators that any sharing of nuclear technology with Iran had the approval of Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the commander of Pakistan’s army from 1988 to 1991. The official said aides to Dr. Khan had told investigators the same thing.
It is not known if investigators have questioned General Beg, who is retired. While army chief, General Beg publicly advocated a strategic partnership between Iran and Pakistan. But in an interview in November, the general said he had not approved the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran or any other country.
“I was privy to the nuclear policy,” he said. “There was a policy of nuclear restraint.”
American officials say they believe that Pakistan has shared nuclear technology with Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistani officials have said that no technology was given to Libya, that no technology is currently going to North Korea and that the allegations about Iran are being aggressively investigated.
They have said that individuals may have leaked technology to Iran in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but that the government never authorized such a move.
In a speech to Parliament on Saturday, President Pervez Musharraf, a general who seized power in a coup in 1999, said Pakistan had to prove to the international community that it was a responsible nuclear power.
Within hours, eight former and current officials were taken into custody for questioning, government officials said. Three scientists had already been detained for questioning in November and December.
The aggressiveness of the inquiry has provoked protests across the political spectrum and accusations that the Musharraf government is reacting to pressure from Washington.
On Monday an alliance of hard-line Islamic parties, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Front, announced that it would begin nationwide street demonstrations.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the acting head of the religious alliance, which holds the third-largest number of seats in Parliament, called the inquiry the “worst kind of victimization of national heroes to please the Bush administration.”
Secular, pro-Western political parties and analysts, as well as the families of the scientists, also criticized the government, saying scientists lauded as national heroes weeks ago were now being humiliated. They said senior army and government officials were scapegoating scientists to increase their own credibility with Western leaders.
Khwaja Asif, a member of Parliament for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), a secular party, said it was doubtful that individuals could secretly transfer technology without the military knowing.
Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan Khan, a military spokesman, called the new travel restriction a security precaution. “Until the time investigations are completed,” he said, “the government has to ensure that the scientists are present here.”
Government officials said eight current and former officials in the nuclear program, including two retired brigadiers, a retired major and at least three scientists, were undergoing voluntary questioning and were able to contact their families. They emphasized that no one had been accused of wrongdoing so far.
Families of the officials give an entirely different account. They put the number of people being questioned at 20 to 25. They also said those being held were forcibly detained and had not contacted their families while in custody.
Two of three scientists known to have been detained in December have been allowed to return to their families, relatives said. Most of the others have not contacted their families, including one scientist taken into custody at the end of November, the families say.
All of the officials being questioned appear to have been employed at the Khan Research Laboratories, the country’s main nuclear weapons development facility in Kahuta. All are believed to be close aides to Dr. Khan, who is himself being questioned.
Saima Adil, the eldest daughter of Dr. Nazir Ahmed, a chief engineer at the Kahuta labs, said 8 to 10 unidentified men surrounded the family’s house on Saturday evening.
“They took our father away,” she said, “and till now we don’t have no idea about his whereabouts or his condition.
“Such a treatment is tantamount to terrorizing those scientists who have given their lives to serve their country.”
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad for this article and David Rohde from New Delhi.