ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan is training 8,000 additional people to protect the country's nuclear arsenal, which the U.S. fears could be vulnerable to penetration by Islamist militants at war with the West, the Pakistani military said.
Those fears were heightened by a recent U.S. magazine article that quoted unnamed Pakistani and American officials as saying Pakistan transports nuclear weapons components around the country in delivery vans with little security to avoid detection -- a claim denied by Islamabad.
Pakistan insists its nuclear arsenal is well-defended, and the widespread fear among many Pakistanis is that the main threat stems not from al-Qaida or the Taliban, but from suspected U.S. plans to seize the country's weapons. These fears were heightened by the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
Washington has insisted it has no plans to seize Pakistan's weapons. But the recent article in The Atlantic magazine quoted unnamed American military and intelligence officials as saying the U.S. has trained extensively for potential missions in Pakistan to secure nuclear weapons or material that fall into the wrong hands.
Pakistan rarely reveals details about its nuclear program or the security around it. The announcement by the Pakistani military that it is training an additional 8,000 people to protect the nuclear arsenal could be seen as a response to the magazine article.
"This (group) comprises hand-picked officers and men, who are physically robust, mentally sharp and equipped with modern weapons and equipment," said the Pakistani military in a written statement Sunday.
The statement was released in conjunction with the graduation of 700 of these security personnel. The ceremony was attended by Maj. Gen. Muhammad Tahir, head of security for the Strategic Plans Division -- the arm of the Pakistani military tasked with protecting the nuclear arsenal.
Tahir "reiterated that extensive resources have been made available to train, equip, deploy and sustain an independent and potent security force to meet any and every threat emanating from any quarter," according to the statement.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry also put out a statement Sunday calling the allegations in the article in The Atlantic "pure fiction."
Fear that the U.S. could seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons is driven by widespread anti-Americanism in the country. Despite billions of dollars in American aid, 69 percent of people in the country view the U.S. as an enemy, according to a poll conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in June. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
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